Thursday, January 13, 2011

Black Swan: Arty Dive

Well, I’m going to disagree with the great majority of critics on this one. While it’s racking up raves and notoriety for its arty approach and dancing from Star Wars heroine Natalie Portman (as well as its lesbian scene – thrown in to draw in some straight men, no doubt), I believe Black Swan is what we in polite circles call pretentious twaddle. (If Twaddle was a dance step, my movie companion – a former ballet dancer – said, this movie would be full of it).

I fully get what this movie is trying to do. The movie itself – ostensibly about a too-perfect, overly coddled New York ballet dancer who could finally get the chance to move from the core to the lead of Swan Lake, if only she could find her inner sexually liberated “black swan” – is itself a modern retelling of Swan Lake. Portman’s character, Nina Sayers, is the white swan. Mila Kunis plays Lily, the new dancer from out of town, or the black swan. And Thomas Leroy (played by Vincent Cassel - perhaps you'll recognize him as the French art thief from Oceans Thirteen), is the producer who ravishes his female dancers. He's Prince Siegfried and perhaps Von Rothbart as well, there to bring out the sexual yearnings of the white swan. Just like Swan Lake, the white swan is upstaged by the black swan; and the events in the lives of the dancers are meant to parallel the original story. The parallel is a rather lose one, until the final scene, where we’re presented with a puzzle: was this ending just the imaginary Swan Lake inside the story, or is the story now Swan Lake? The curtain comes down without telling us about whose reality we’re in at this point: another great twaddle move (since the movie has played with reality so much, it hardly matters by this point).

Add to the art-house ending all and sundry psycho-sexual thriller clichés as the story drapes this ballet. Nina is not only coddled and child-like, sleeping with teddy bears in her late twenties, but protected by a too-attentive and jealous mother. She’s a personality on the verge of a psychological splitting, imagining that she sees her sexually liberated self coming towards her in a subway, and the movie plays with doppelgangers, hallucinations, and of course, what’s real and what isn’t. All this seems to be more in service of titillating us with reality fake-outs and Natalie Portman pleasuring herself on camera than of any great story.

Personally, I liked the dancing and staging, though my dance experienced companion was squirming at Natlie Portman’s moves. “A real dancer would never have this dilemma,” he told me, referring to Nina’s trouble mastering the more sultry and sexy Black Swan part. “By the time someone is ready for a lead they would easily be able to play these two different roles.” That ruined the entire premise of the movie for him, though not being a dance expert myself, I was willing to give the story a pass on this point. For me it was, however, just more evidence that this movie is more about arty pretention and the idea of seeing Portman turn into a sex temptress than it is about anything real.

While I wouldn’t say the film is terrible – some great work has gone into staging the dance numbers, even if my friend thinks Portman’s work doesn’t quite rise to believable professionalism. I just can’t go along with those who find some deep meaning in the film. To me, this is exhibit A for those who complain that the art world can, at times, be without content and simply about pushing psycho-sexual buttons. If you want to see Portman push those buttons, by all means, don’t let me deter you.