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By Melynda Nuss

LOS ANGELES, 1 FEBRUARY 2011 — There was a time when posters showing a battered pair of toe shoes were standard issue for pre-teen girls’ rooms. They represented hard work and self-denial in the service of transcendence — the dirty and sweaty side of art. In their own way, they were the flip side of the pictures of athletic glory that graced their brothers’ walls. 

Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan does good service to this side of ballet. It is no surprise that he envisoned it as a companion piece to his 2008 film The Wrestler. We can see the sweat flying off the dancers, hear the bones cracking in the toe shoes, feel the ooze of the blood.  Even the cinder-block practice rooms of Lincoln Center look more like a boxing gym than the preparatory space for the art temple. There are beautiful dance sequences, but the movie is more concerned with the ice packs and ace bandages that make them possible. It is a movie about the pursuit of perfection and the pain that entails.  With a little tweaking, it could have been a great sports movie.

Natalie Portman in Black Swan
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Where the movie falls down, unfortunately, is in the area where it has gotten its most enthusiastic billing: as a "psychosexual thriller." At its most basic level, the plot is a strange tale of method acting. Nina (Natalie Portman) is finally lifted out of the corps de ballet to star in the dual role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. As a perfect, virginal, driven ballerina, she is perfect for the pure and fragile Odette, but she must get in touch with her "dark side" to play the sexy, flirtatious Odile. A rival of sorts enters her life in the form of Lily (Mila Kunis), who is wild, confident and fun. And as she gets more deeply into the role — and starts deepening her friendship with Lily — she begins to take on the black wings, the red eyes and the misshapen feet of the black swan. 

Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman in Black Swan
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Dance movies have a long history of teaching uptight girls how to loosen up — think Footloose, for example, or Dirty Dancing, Step Up, or Save the Last Dance.  Dancing is a way for the heroine to abandon her perfectionism and find her passion, often with a hero who promises her true love — and better dancing. Even in Swan Lake, the nineteenth century ballet that gives Black Swan its cue, the heroine wants nothing more than to escape her graceful prison in the body of a swan and become a real human woman. But in Black Swan, Aranofsky is not sure what he thinks of this transformation. On the one hand, the movie paints Nina as a girl who seriously needs to loosen up. A nearly grown woman, she still lives in a room full of stuffed animals and lace, with a tight-lipped  mother who makes her birthday cake and insists that she get a good night’s sleep before practice. At this level, Lily is a breath of normality. She confidently strides into practice late – heavens!  She has tattoos — horrors!  And she persuades the virginal Nina to go to a bar — a nice, well-decorated bar, the sort where a ballerina could meet a couple of nice young professional men who might buy a girl a drink and ask for her phone number. And — don’t read this if you’re faint hearted — Lily is even the type of girl who, when drunk, might be persuaded to engage in some casual lesbian flirtation. In Nina’s sterile life, one might think that this was a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman in Black Swan
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

But Aronofsky doesn’t see it that way. Even though Nina’s life is bleak and sterile, her transformation out of it looks even more dangerous. She dreams of evil enchanters, or dark figures lurking in the shadows, of mysterious rashes, of sores that won’t heal. Adulthood, it seems, means blood, madness and death. And Aronofsky makes adulthood look genuinely creepy. While in Swan Lake Odette eagerly awaits her consummation with her handsome, if unfaithful, prince, Nina’s boss and would-be-lover is just icky as he slowly strokes her shoulders as he tells her that, for the sake of her professional career, she must  stop being such a good girl. Swan Lake revolves around a saving declaration of true love; Black Swan knows that sex is evil, and that the lover who woos you today will abandon you tomorrow. Behind Nina’s sexual initiation — if sexual initiation there is to be — stands the weeping, black-clad figure of Beth Macintyre (Winona Rider), the last prima ballerina who fell prey to her boss’s nefarious intentions. She has been seduced and abandoned; now she has been ruined.

Natalie Portman and Winona Rider in Black Swan
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Seduced? Abandoned? Ruined? As we make the turn into the second decade of the twenty-first century, when feminism and the sexual revolution will pass their fiftieth birthdays and have to decide whether to pluck their grey hairs, can we really talk about sexual initiation as "ruining" a young woman? Has the revival of interest in Jane Austen made young women once again worry once about whether they might get a slit in their fine, white muslin dresses? I will here second the unanimous critical opinion that Natalie Portman gives a wonderful performance. But I give her extra points for making such a strange role even minimally believable. Seriously — a twentysomething woman living in New York, whose profession insists on glorifying beautiful bodies, who has never considered what it might be like to touch a man? A woman who has never thought of cutting loose in a bar?  Has she never heard of Paris Hilton? Never seen an advertisement for Girls Gone Wild on late night TV? As a result, the character of Nina comes across as downright strange. She’s a fairy tale princess imprisoned by an evil witch, an innocent in the cave of the enchanter. As a Swan Lake fantasy, it’s beautiful. But when Aranofsky takes his princess into real-world New York, I just wanted to shake her by her shoulders and tell her to get a life. 

Natalie Portman and Vincent Cassel in Black Swan
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

In the ballet, evil is attractive. The prince is seduced by the coquettish Odile, not only becase she resembles the virginal Odette, but because evil has its own kind of lure.  When Nina finally dances the black swan, we can see a flash of that evil. Perhaps a more realistic Nina might have had some evil desire that progressed through the movie — a secret obsession, a glare of lust, a murderous rage. But the evil in the rest of the movie is so tawdry that it doesn’t even come close. If evil consists of having a few mimosas in a bar and kissing a girl, then we really have taken our Puritan heritage too far. 

Natalie Portman in Black Swan
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

The most touching tribute to this movie that I’ve seen so far is an article by Amanda Green, a principal dancer for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. While praising Portman’s performance in the dance sequences — she really did the work — as a ballerina Green wants to reassure her audience that, really, in spite of what you see in the movie, most ballerinas are quite normal — "healthy, happy and active members of their social group," truly, "no different than you."  I can think of no better description of this movie’s problems. Aranofsky wants to import a nineteenth-century world of high passion, melodrama and suspense. But like Nina, he is so obsessed with athleticism and professionalsim — with the perfection of the white swan — that he can’t understand the world of the black. He wanted a good girl tempted by the world of Mata Hari; he got an emotionally-disturbed high school girl that you just want to send for some serious counseling. I do believe that there is drama and passion in the twenty-first century world. But unfortunately, Black Swan isn’t it. 

Melynda Nuss is a writer and an Associate Professor of Romantic Literature and Drama at the University of Texas - Pan American. She last wrote on the film adaptation of Ian McEwan's Atonement for Culturekiosque.

Headline image: Natalie Portman in Black Swan
Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

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