an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me | Advertise | Follow me:

They Lost It at the Movies

Black Swan / Opened December 3, 2010

Surely The Red Shoes, created by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, is the most beloved ballet film of all time. My innocent eyes and heart were ravished by it shortly after its premiere in 1948. Shot in fabulous color–it glowed like a handful of precious jewels–the movie was built on a melodramatic exaggeration of a myth still popular at the time. The idea (which had a modicum of truth in it), was that being a ballerina was a full-time job and a half, leaving no room whatsoever for love or its frequent partner, domesticity. Woe betide the gifted young dancer, then, who found herself caught in the conflict between artistic glory and romantic satisfaction.

I’ll never forget the final shot of the movie’s anguished heroine, Moira Shearer–a great beauty of a ballerina, her porcelain skin and aquiline profile framed in a cloud of delicately curling red hair–just after she’d flung herself into the path of a moving train. I can still see her svelte stilled legs in their pale ballet tights and the gleaming red pointe shoes–all bloodied.

Some two decades later, as if performing a ritual, I took my nine-year-old daughter and two of her schoolmates to the film and, in the fullness of time, one of my daughter’s daughters, at the same age. Similarly seduced mothers had been doing so since The Red Shoes first opened, and, if it fired the imaginations of their fledgling daughters, as it reliably did, enrolled the girls in ballet school. (Not until Billy Elliot did boy aspirants get an equal opportunity.)

Times have changed. The ostensible ballet movie of the moment is Darren Aronofsky’s extravagantly promoted Black Swan which, a week before its December 3 opening, had finally gotten around to describing itself, accurately, as “a psycho-sexual thriller.” Eerily, it has a lot in common with The Red Shoes. It’s pitch perfect in embodying passé Romantic myths about (1) classical ballet, (2) madness, and (3) sex (formerly known as love). Nevertheless, mothers with any sense in them will lock up their daughters rather than regale them with this show.

Here’s the “official trailer”–a don’t-miss–of Black Swan:

The tale this flick tells: Nina (Natalie Portman, with the help of choreographer Benjamin Millepied; intensive re-training in classical dance which she studied in an earlier life; and a double, American Ballet Theatre’s Sarah Lane, for the tricky bits) is a lovely young dancer–all radiant innocence and vulnerability–on her way to stardom in a world-class ballet company based in New York. She comes equipped with a few problems, though.

Problem 1: The company’s director (Vincent Cassel), obsessively controlling (like the Red Shoes’s Lermontov) and erotically rapacious, is mounting a new production of Swan Lake. Nina’s a natural for half of the dual leading role that would be her break-through–the pure, lyrical Odette, queen of a bevy of swans who are actually maidens entrapped by an evil sorcerer. However she can’t manage to embody the evil Odile (the black swan) who, impersonating Odette, seduces the prince who has vowed to rescue the pure object of his affections. “Your dancing is still frigid,” “I never see you lose yourself,” the director complains to his protégée–and of course suggests sex as the perfect cure-all.

Problem 2: Nina’s mental health is shaky at best. So as the plot tangles, she’s more and more subject to hallucinations, each of them so ambiguous at first that the viewer, as well as Nina, confuses them with actuality.

In real life, Nina has to deal with the cruelty of the young replacing the old, as is common–and inevitable–in the performing arts. The director gives Nina the lead in Lake (as insiders call it) and publicly fires the company’s aging prima, who attempts suicide. Then, as Nina becomes increasingly unhinged by the strain of making good in the role, she finds herself threatened by Lily (Mila Kunis), a hardier and earthier type than our ingénue, whom the director imports–from California, where else?–to take over as Odette-Odile if necessary.

Lily’s resulting gaudy nightmares about her situation involve (semi-graphic) masturbation, group sex, and lesbian sex, with the assumption that they’re still no-nos. And murder (Nina offs Lily), which is still generally frowned upon. (The huge New York audience for the preview I attended found much to laugh at.) After imagining a fucking session with Lily–talk about sleeping with the enemy!–Nina tells her rival about it as if it had actually happened. “Was I good?” Lily asks. This is the only intentionally funny line in the show.

If matters weren’t gothic enough without it, blood is a key element in Black Swan. Early in the film Nina develops a rash on her back that she scratches until it bleeds, introducing the theme of self-harm, specifically cutting, a behavior observed in people with “issues.” Nina takes the sanguine vein all the way. Soon she’s oozing blood from her fingertips. Finally she inserts a mean knife into her vagina and–after a triumphant debut in Lake–expires with blood soaking through her white, thickly feathered tutu between her breasts and at her belly. “I was perfect,” she whispers of her performance as she lies dying, “I was perfect.” So much for amateur psychology mated with cheap thrills. And an inordinate desire to cop an Oscar.

It’s probably overkill, or too late, but I should mention Nina’s Problem 3. Though surely old enough for her own digs, she lives with her mom. Who is a ballet mom, over-protecting, indeed smothering, the daughter for whom she’s sacrificed her own dancing career. I wouldn’t even bother mentioning this–the caricature is without compassion and old hat besides–except for the fact that Barbara Hershey, who plays the role, is by far the most accomplished actor in the film. Her portrayal of the self-sacrificing yet fatally needy woman is honest, deep, and extremely subtle. You can almost believe that this momma took her kid to see The Red Shoes with the best intentions in the world.

For the sake of completeness, see the trailer for The Red Shoes:

© 2010 Tobi Tobias


  1. Now, where do we send your medal? You’ve outdone yourself!

  2. Brenda Berck says

    This brings back very fond memories of seeing “The Red Shoes” with my mom, a lot of years ago, and again later, as an adult.
    I won’t be locking up my non-existing daughters when “Black Swan” comes to town, but I will metaphorically lock up myself. A psycho-sexual thriller filled with lots of blood, even if it appears to have a lot in common with “The Red Shoes,” would destroy one of my happier childhood memories!

  3. Ellen Handler Spitz says

    Thanks so much for your devastating review of “Black Swan.” I am very grateful. I had guessed as much, but now I will definitely shun this mad, tasteless film.
    As for “The Red Shoes,” yes! a thousand times, yes! As a child I wanted–of course–to BE Moira Shearer. We all did. It was wonderful of you to add that trailer to your review. Quelle difference!

  4. Nancy Hilyer says

    I hate the idea of combining outstanding dancing with blood and guts! Is this the only way we can get today’s movie-goers to watch ballet dancing? And then what? Ballet, Blood, and Disfunction forever connected?

  5. Shame on you for revealing the ending with no warning!

  6. Tobi Tobias says

    Sorry. It didn’t occur to me that I was breaking the “Spoiler’s Rule,” since I thought the end was clearly in sight even before the first drops of blood oozed onto the screen.

  7. Mindy Aloff says

    I’m fascinated by Joan Moes, who begs to have the vaginal mutilation of the heroine sprung on us, perhaps so an unsuspecting viewer can experience the thrill of spontaneous projectile vomiting in the theater? Tobi, don’t you apologize for a nanosecond!! You’re performing a public service here. A ballet dancer of my acquaintance, who went into a “Black Swan” screening unspoiled, so to speak, warned me that she had to leave the theater to vomit, discreetly, in the ladies’ room. I, now happily spoiled, have decided to give up on swans entirely and just, uh, cut to the chase with a trip to the Bronx Zoo.

  8. Ms. Tobias,
    Am I the only one who saw the film as a wet dream of a 15-year-old boy, created by the studio to earn money by appealing to the ignorant? Where is your sense of discretion? So the secret of Maya Plisetskaya’s, Alicia Alonso’s, or Margot Fonteyn’s Odile was to party, take drugs and masturbate?
    Does the fact that Millepied’s choreography is risable, not to say lame, compared to Petipa/Ivanov, the distortion of Tchaikovsky’s score, and the ridiculous view of a ballet company’s working not make you squirm?
    Shame on you for dignifying this trashy film by the space you gave it.
    Eddie Lew

    Dear Eddie Lew,
    Thank you for writing.
    I appreciate your argument, and your dismay, but I think a critic has to move beyond his/her personal taste in choosing what to review. I took on “Black Swan” partly because–from what I understood from its advertising campaign–it was aiming to attract a huge audience, using the lure of classical ballet, which appeals to a relatively small audience.
    I must say I was astonished by the fact that my review was “clicked on” by, on average, more than twice the number of people than have sought out any other of of the pieces I’ve written for SEEING THINGS. This isn’t news to rejoice in, is it?
    BTW: Years and years ago, the tabloids had a field day with the fact that Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev were caught on camera fleeing a party that was raided by the police, who suspected drug use on the premises.

  10. Leigh Witchel says

    I saw “Black Swan” at a screening. I decided not to judge it as a dance film, but a horror flick with dance as a background. Even so, I had two main objections: Aronofsky’s ghoulishness — he’s fascinated by ballet’s craziness without seeing beyond to its redemptive qualities. It’s like a person who gets off on picking scabs.
    And in service of that tunnel vision, he gives the film no air to breathe in — shaky hand-held camera, distorted speeds, close-up shots that sever limbs and torsos. The camera does all the dancing and it’s the antithesis of ballet.
    There was an interesting piece in the LA Times a few days ago postulating an age gap in how one felt about the film —
    See you on the battlefield.
    All best,

  11. Tobi, I enjoyed this review immensely.
    I’m not really a teeshirt vendor, but perhaps this joke posting will give dance critics stressed out by this miserable movie a laugh: See:
    My review, I am proud to say, ran on the AFI, American Film Institute, blog site the week that the film opened in Los Angeles, red carpet, celebs and all. I was impressed that my young editor, a cineaste who hated the film but lacked the dance chops to address it (this didn’t stop most film reviewers) posted my dance-driven, critical review.
    On the AFI site, I had to pull some punches (Aronofsky is a proud graduate). But on Huffington Post, I let ‘er rip:
    Regards from Los Angeles,
    Debra Levine

an ArtsJournal blog