As a teenage dancer in 1970s Manhattan who took studio class every day and was egged into her first LSD trip with a group of scary young ballet dancers in a claustrophobic apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I may have been overly prepped to relish Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar-nominated “Black Swan.”
No other film, (certainly not “Fame,” even though I went to that high school and know how much of that movie was culled from day-to-day activities), has come anywhere close to capturing the cold, competitive, isolating, sexually aggressive coming-of-age story that is the tragedy of born-and-bred-in-New-York aspiring dancers.
Debates over the success of the horror in the film, or how deftly Aronosky handles the camp factor just don’t feel like the core issue here. To me the perfectly wrought screenplay (interweaving the “Swan Lake” plot with the young Manhattan artist story) delivers a sharp and beautifully faceted metaphor that hits its target dead center.
Like no other art, ballet consumes its young. New York City also preys on its youth, especially in the dirty, hustling, bankrupt 1970s (Aronofsky’s childhood era). Granted “Black Swan” is supposed to be contemporary, but it focuses on the pockets of the city that really haven’t changed much in the last 30 years. There are no shots of Broadway’s current parade of imported-from-the-suburbs chain stores nor any of those friendly Brooklyn neighborhoods where men wear baby slings and women sell repurposed clothing and yarn owls. The only exterior scenes in the film, aside from Lincoln Center’s fountain, are timeless shots of the subway or those dark, dripping street tunnels below construction site scaffolding.
The interiors are equally powerful: the windowless, concrete hallways of the studio, the lava flows of marble covering the Euro-style banquet halls, the centrally placed piano in the company director’s loft-like, black-and-white apartment.
Of all things, though, it was the small, stark Indian batik print hanging in the Sayers’ hallway that gave me the strongest chills. Here Aronofsky plants a little important clue of the larger endangered species in the film: the Hopeful Aesthetic Manhattanite, a member of a breed that attempts to infuse its life with a broader cultural reach and meaning that goes beyond the city’s bleak determinism. Cue the tragic Tchaikovsky score…..
But shouldn’t ballet be a surefire link to the artistic sublime? Nina and her mother have both devoted their lives to this worldly art — developed in France, set ablaze by the Russians, then planted in New York by European masters who came to run and develop companies here — yet here’s the HORROR: although Nina inhabits America’s most cosmopolitan city, she is still but a small, foolish American who can’t “feel it.”
When Vincent Cassel, as ballet master Tomas Leroy, taunts Nina that her art is too “perfect,” that she needs to “let herself go,” he is so plainly the fading European Leader telling superpower America that her money can’t buy her Art. Her tight little universe of competitive ballet study and an isolated two-person apartment, so devoid of history and society and romance, has left her dull. No Indian batik is going to make a dent in that. (Another reason this is really a 20-century story: In the 21st century, us weakening Americans would be judging and chastising the subtle depths of Asian artistic achievements, no?)
For the dance segments in the film, Benjamin Milliped has choreographed simple, enduring phrases that Aronofsky shot with breathtaking awareness and style. Portman doesn’t have a ballerina’s body (she’s too small, and her arms are too short) but her intensity and conviction are perfect. The ballet sections at film’s end burn holes in your brain and restore the magnificent oddity and elegance to the classic story of “Swan Lake.” Portman (raised on Long Island during her high school years) totally gets it.
Thus the steady stream of backlash against the film in these weeks leading up to Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony has been disheartening to me. Maybe it’s just my circle of friends, but I’m watching disses of the film on Facebook being greeted with overflowing relief, with folks acting as if they’ve just been spared from parading through town in the Emperor’s New Clothes. There’s weariness, too, that Portman is such a shoo-in for the Best Actress honor (and an assumption that she’s earning it simply because its one of those full-body immersion roles, a la “Raging Bull.”)
Mostly, though, it seems Darren Aronofsky’s style of overblown theatrics pushes too many buttons. There’s been a plea for a cooler, more Polanski-styled take on this material — a “Rosemary’s Baby” done up in leg warmers and ballet mirrors.
But again, “Rosemary’s Baby” is a different New York story. Rosemary and Guy have just moved into their scary mysterious new orbit in the Dakota apartment building. In contrast, Nina Sayers has been bred in and warped by her crappy little Westside apartment with her prestigious nearby ballet school. Love and normalcy were never possibilities for her. Achieving artistic ecstasy is her only possible glory. Fuel her with a diet of honors and drugs and pressure and away she goes!!!
As a middle-aged mother, I should really be rooting for Annette Bening to win the Oscar for “The Kids are All Right.” I do believe there are stories out there of family struggle and matriarchal statesmanship that need to be told. But I’m so much more grateful for “Black Swan’s” brutal examination of a young, unformed woman yoked to an artistic desire, a story in which the artist’s tragedy is kept a distinctly separate issue from questions of love and romance. (There is absolutely no simpering here along the lines of “The Story of Adele H,” yet all the piercing longing is matched).
Finally, the fact that the movie has contributed to a massive bump in ticket sales for “Swan Lake” in London and New York is welcome news of a re-educated and invigorated dance audience. We’ll just ignore the fact that folks are confusedly asking which night Natalie Portman will dance the role.
[this piece originally ran on Crosscut]