Thursday, February 17, 2011

The role of a lifetime

Yesterday I wrote a post about the definition of success, and then last night I went to see a movie that deals with the topic of success in a rather bizarre way--Black Swan, a film about what it takes to reach the top in the dance world. You might say that it is a film about what it takes to be the winner at all costs, but it is just as much about what happens to the losers in the competitive world of ballet. Mostly it is about the psychological disintegration of a talented but passionless young ballet dancer, Nina (played by Natalie Portman), who desperately wants the role of a lifetime—the coveted role of the White Swan/Black Swan in the new production of Swan Lake. She is a technically-perfect dancer who cannot seem to let go and give her role the passion it requires, whereas the woman whom she perceives as her rival, Lily (played by Mila Kunis), while not a technically-perfect dancer, is a passionate and free-spirited one. Lily is everything Nina is not; she is the ‘fantasy’ girl of teenage years, especially for the wall-flower types--cool, a party-girl, a flirt, and a seductress. She is unafraid of authority and of her peers. Nina is attracted to her and fantasizes about being with her. Nina on the other hand is virginal, repressed, afraid of her feelings, introverted, cowed, and immature, and of course she admires Lily’s free-spiritedness at the same time that she realizes that Lily is after ‘her’ role. The overwhelming pressure to succeed, as well as the perceived extreme competition coupled with Erica’s (Nina’s mother, played by Barbara Hershey) overbearing and controlling behavior toward her daughter, is too much for her and she ‘cracks’. The film’s portrayal of her mental disintegration borders on the grotesque—the obsession with her body, her scratching that leads to bloody wounds on her back, fingernails that need to be cut so that she doesn’t scratch herself, toenails that are cracked and bloody, and so on. When the former White Swan, Beth (played by Winona Ryder) is pushed out of her role due to her age, she deliberately walks out into the street and gets hit by a car. She ends up in the hospital with injured legs. Nina visits her, and while Beth is sleeping, Nina takes a look at the damage to her legs and recoils in horror. The film does a good job at showing just how dependent ballet dancers are on a functioning body—legs, arms, feet, hands, toes, etc. Without any one of them, a dancer cannot perform well. So the obsession with the body is understandable. But the film also has Nina pursued by a kind of evil ‘double’, which is a jolting experience at times when she appears (shades of The Grudge—also in the scene where Nina’s bones start to crack and she ends up deformed-looking). Again, I won’t spoil the film for you by giving away the different events or the ending. I will say that it is a good film, albeit a demanding one to watch. But I did not think it was a great film, and I am surprised that so many critics thought it was. It could have been a great film, but it was too disjointed in parts and it could not make up its mind whether it wanted to be a horror/thriller film or a dramatic film. It opted to be a bit of both and for me it didn’t quite do both well. I would have liked more focus on the relationship between ‘stage’ mother Erica (who was a former dancer who gave up dancing when she had her daughter) and Nina, because that to me was one of the most interesting relationships in the film. It was clear from the way Erica behaved that she was unsure about whether she wanted Nina to achieve success. It seemed as though she would have preferred that her daughter ‘failed’ like she had done. I would have liked a bit more insight into Beth’s life. How was it possible that a top dancer in a top dance company was so unaware that her years at the top were limited? How could she not have prepared for that eventuality? That seemed unrealistic to me. Both Erica and Beth were portrayed as the losers, and I would have liked to have known more about them. I also did not think that the lesbian scene between Nina and Lily added much to the film. I didn’t find it offensive; I just thought it was unnecessary. The scene of the two of them kissing in the taxi would have been enough to give us the general idea that this is what Nina wanted, what woke her passion. I would have preferred a more realistic and dramatic exploration of this aspect of Nina’s personality. Overall, I would perhaps have liked the film better if it had been a more realistic story of a ballet dancer’s life instead of a horror film about a repressed ballet dancer’s life. I was reminded of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion because it also dealt with a sexually-repressed young woman who goes insane. I think Repulsion is a better film than Black Swan. Watching the completely-repressed and frigid Catherine Deneuve’s breakdown was disturbing, but at least we understood that her actions were real—she really did kill the men who came into the apartment, and her condition led her to imagine all sorts of bizarre things, like the sequence where she walks down the apartment hallway and sees hands coming out of the walls to touch and grab her. Repulsion was a genuinely scary film in the same way that Psycho was—they were horror films. I would have liked to have understood the ending of Black Swan—in order to have some kind of closure. It would also have defined the film better for me. But there are some beautiful moments in the film—when Nina and Lily dance or just listening to the incredible music of Tchaikovsky. These make the film worth seeing. And Natalie Portman will probably win a well-deserved Oscar. But I don’t know if the film itself will win for Best Film. 


  1. This is a terrific review Paula! I am so glad to hear in detail what the film was like. The previews were intriguing but I was not inclined to see it. Having read your synopsis and description I have what i need! Thank you!!!!

  2. And it seems as though I got it right this time! Natalie Portman did win Best Actress but Best Film went to The King's Speech.......