It is probably unfair for a ballet nut to review Black Swan, but it’s equally unfair to expect us to stay away from it. It is not, of course, about ballet any more than Field of Dreams is about baseball. In both cases, the art is trying to be both Fred and Ginger, giving class and sex to a dopey story. In both cases, critics and audiences are eating them up.
I shan’t critique the dancing, other than to say that Matthew Libatique’s cinematography and Daniel Weisblum’s editing quite brilliantly disguise, to the degree it’s possible, the rowboat-oar stiffness of Natalie Portman’s and Mila Kunis’s arms and necks. And I shall only carp briefly about the gaffes that show a laughable disregard for the subject at hand, with Exhibit A the continual reference to Portman’s leading role as “The Swan Queen,” as if she’s about to be given a corsage and a paper crown at an annual prom for birds. (I will give props to the many scenes where characters monotonously beat up toe shoes and sew pink ribbons on them, the most realistic thing in the entire movie.)
Keep that prom metaphor in the back of your head for a minute. Director Darren Aronofsky has proven himself to be a poet for the hard-scrabble, achieving stunning results with The Wrestler and Requiem for a Dream. But for all its seductive power, ballet is pretty rarefied stuff; you might love it the first time you lay eyes on it, but you have to meet it at least halfway. Loving ballet is like loving a person: Work at the relationship or you deserve for it to stay superficial. Imagine someone making a football picture without knowing what an end zone is; it just rings false.
So while dancers may fascinate Aronofsky and a lot of other folks on the surface, this movie isn’t capable of paying homage to The Red Shoes or really to the art form at all because it just doesn’t get it. Instead, it’s a love letter to Carrie, Grand Guignol with the players just happening to wear tutus.
Take the two main supporting roles; how I wished for a New York audience as I snickered alone and quietly as Vincent Cassell shrieks “You BEET me!!” in response to Natalie Portman chomping on his lip in an unwelcome kiss. I immediately flashed on Will Farrell shouting from below stage to Dr. Evil in Austin Powers, “You SHOT me!! I can’t believe it!!” Barbara Hershey – as a kid, I thought she was the prettiest thing in a TV show no one remembers, “The Monroes” – has had so much surgery at this point she looks, sadly, like an early film actor in yellowface (and if you don’t believe me, look up Nils Asther in The Bitter Tea of General Yen). It’s her job to play Piper Laurie, and it’s unfortunate; Hershey is best in quiet, modest roles where she can play someone who doesn’t really think there’s much special about her. Casting her as a Machiavellian Mama is to force her to chew scenery when she’s never had those kind of choppers.
Mila Kunis has a generous, Jolie-lite beauty, and she’s lovely and natural, bringing the only touch of grace and sly humor to this decidedly clunky enterprise. Yes, she has ping pong paddle hands when she “dances,” but so does Portman. Ok, I said I wouldn’t do that. Anyway, Kunis provides a valuable service: The key to being a serious contender for Best Actress this year is to have another woman’s head between your legs. She is that head, and Portman wins in a waltz, even with 2 left feet.
With her bone china face and slender neck, Portman is utterly believable as a ballerina in close up, and her baby voice that’s clearly never spent any time outside of a rehearsal studio works nicely as well. But as a breakout role, Nina Ballerina doesn’t give her much. Aronofsky generally casts well, and in the movies mentioned above, Ellen Burstyn, Mickey Rourke, Jennifer Connelly, Jared Leto, and – shocker – Marlon Wayans have all blazed across the screen like comets. Poor Portman has to continually play a Woman on the Verge, and repeatedly makes a face like a lovely, extremely pampered child who’s been told that she must actually shovel some poop if she wants to keep her pet pony. Much of that is the script’s fault; it’s just silly, and perhaps no one could have done much with the part and still provided as close of a physical facsimile of a dancer as Portman does. But you have to wonder why they didn’t go The Turning Point route and just get a dancer who could act a little. Honestly, she doesn’t have to do all that much except look in the mirror a lot, furrow her brow, gasp a few times, and have an orgasm. Come on, folks, is that really that demanding?
At one point, Cassell says to Portman, “Your biggest enemy is yourself.” This may prove true at Oscar time, as the studio seems to be gambling that Portman’s free throw will be a slam dunk with the added exposure of her in No Strings Attached, which pits her opposite acting powerhouse Ashton Kutcher. I suspect, and I’m sure it’s wishful thinking, that the vapidity of that particular exercise may expose Portman as the adult child actress that she is, leaving the prize just barely in reach to the other actress who opened up her legs to a non-bearded face, Annette Bening.
In fact, try to imagine for a few seconds Bening as a young woman in Portman’s current role. Wait – you don’t have to. Just watch Being Julia from a few year’s back. It’s a script about performing, and it’s every bit as hokey and dumb as Swan. Yet Bening has a field day, absolutely enjoying every second of her preposterous role and even nailing the English accent. But comparing a comedic performance to a dramatic one is hardly fair, so simply take Bening’s greatest work, the brittle, terrifying, and tragically empty wife in American Beauty. The range of her emotions as she dramatically comes apart at the seams are what’s needed here. Come to think of it, she could have shone in the Hershey role. But she’s already done solid work this year in The Kids Are All Right, which, while it isn’t great, is something of a milestone in showing that long-term gay relationships are every bit as dull and frustrating (and of course, fulfilling and loving; don’t want you to think I’ve gone all anti-monogamy in light of recent personal realities) as hetero ones. On top of which, she’s been married to Warren Beatty for years and years, which has to take some kind of superb skill and grace. For Pete’s sake, show the woman some love.
But….all that’s about as likely as me being chosen as City Ballet’s next Candy Queen – whoops, Sugar Plum Fairy. Hopefully, Portman can gain back a little weight before the end of February. I’ve beheld Oscars in person, and those little bastards are unwieldy. After all the abuse she subjects herself to in the movie, I’d hate for her to drop that thing on her foot.