Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Utterly bonkers? Embarrassingly simplistic hokum? Much as I loved mother!, I didn’t like Aronofsky’s previous, 2010 offering one little bit!
This film is utterly bonkers. Never quite quick enough, smart enough or shocking enough to be the zany masterpiece it might have been, it’s still entertaining enough, if you let yourself go with it. Virginal ballet girl Nina (Natalie Portman), has the bedroom of a pre-teen, does what her (‘I gave my career up for you’) mother tells her, scratches herself till she bleeds, and believes that only technique, dedication and practice make perfect. Big bad Svengali-like choreographer Thomas (Vincent Cassel) wants her to be his next prima ballerina, after his previous ‘Little Princess’ Beth (Winona Ryder) is cast out as being too old, but something’s missing – something to do with that ‘virginal’ bit…
To be perfect in his new production of Swan Lake Nina must dance the part of both the (good) white and (evil) black swan – mirror images of each other, and don’t we know it, as mirrors are seldom absent from the screen. According to Thomas, she won’t bring true passion to the black version until she’s experienced the pleasures of sex (just with herself will do at a pinch – ouch), and abandoned her self control. Trouble is, though it seems to work for the part, this makes her go even more weird than she already is, and not in a good way. This funny idea, that a woman can only really find herself and thereby be a true artist through sex, and then when she’s done that it’s driven her mad, is not really acceptable these days, but you can’t really feel angry with Mr Aronofsky for it, as he presents it in such a charmingly nutty way. In fact it seems to run way beyond his control as the film progresses, mixing elements of Repulsion (young woman goes mad), Carrie (adolescent goes mad) The Red Shoes (dancer goes mad), Suspiria (everyone is mad) All About Eve (older performer pushed out by younger), and even 42nd Street (old hoofer breaks leg and gives way for younger – how refreshing it would have been if Thomas’s previous ‘Little Princess’ had hobbled along like the ghost at the feast to join in the fun backstage for the cataclysmic first night, just like Bebe Daniels did).
Ballet people seem to have in general taken against it, which is not surprising, though their gripe in many cases seems to be that a real dancer would have been better for the role than mere actress Natalie Portman– though what difference that would have made is difficult to grasp. More to the point might be that it presents a warped view of the world of ballet, deliriously piling on self-harm and anorexia, bitchy corps de ballet, arrested development, scheming rivals, lesbianism, egomaniac choreographers and loony mothers (though Barbara Hershey’s ma provides the only character I felt sympathy with –should I be worried by this?), and one can’t help but feel sorry for the cast as a whole, with a script full of terrible clichés to match. Poor old Cassel looks visibly harrowed by some of the awful lines he has to deliver. And yet it is never quite delirious enough to raise it to the mind-altering and mythic level of, say, Suspiria. Still, there’s enough to enjoy – just occasionally Aronovsky gets the hysteria right – the final transformation into evil swan is breathtaking – and Natalie Portman certainly goes through the mill to give her all in physical and emotional turmoil.
in many ways it’s a tremendous disappointment after the same director’s masterpiece of 2008 The Wrestler – the febrile world of performance, the physical punishment, are present in both, but while he pulled out of the seedy world of wrestling, against the odds, something noble and decent, strangely here he does the reverse – he reduces an admired art form to what is mostly almost embarrassingly simplistic hokum.
Seen at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, 26 January 2011