Is ‘Black Swan’ an example of sour grapes?

“Black Swan” doesn’t give ballet a good turn although there were some lovely visual moments, the movie messily pirouettes through some psychological and logical inconsistencies. Directed by Darren Aronosky (“Requiem for a Dream,” “The Wrestler” and “The Fountain”) and written by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz (with John McLaughlin), this psychological thriller looks at a girl, Nina, who gets her first shot as a prima ballerina for a New York ballet company, dancing a revised “Swan Lake.”

For those who don’t know, “Swan Lake” was composed in 1876 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and based on a Russian folk tale where a princess, Odette, is turned into a swan by a sorcerer, Von Rothbart. By day she is a swan; at night she is human. The spell can only be broken if a man remains faithful to her, but if he breaks his vow, then the spell will be permanent. Odette will be forever trapped in the form of a white swan. Prince Siegfried sees Odette as she transforms from a swan into a human and falls in love. Rothbart transforms his daughter Odile, into Odette’s likeness and tricks him into breaking his vow to Odette.

In “Black Swan,” Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is perched on fulfilling her and/or her mother’s lifelong dream–becoming a prima ballerina at a New York City ballet company. Living with her single mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey) who is a former ballerina herself, Nina’s single focus has been ballet since she was young. She sacrificed everything, except perhaps her childhood which doesn’t seem to have quite ended.  Nina idolizes the outgoing prima ballerina, Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder). And although we soon learn she isn’t a virgin although we suspect she might not be exactly telling the truth on that score, the artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is quite sure she doesn’t feel her sexuality. To him, Nina is a repressed, scared little child who can be molded into something that has a little bite. Nina needs to get in touch with her carnal side in order to play the temptress Odile, the black swan.

There are others who are more savagely competitive and sensual such as Lily (Mila Kunis), who becomes Nina’s understudy. The white swan is Odette and the black swan is Odile and in this movie, each character is also a symbolic character. Nina is the white swan. The sexy new dancer from the West Coast, Lily (Mila Kunis), is the black swan.

Yet Nina is also a psychological mess: anorexic, bulimic, cutting and displaying some obsessive compulsive disorders as well. Nina doesn’t hide these problems too well. Although she covers up the cutting with a shrug, her face is filled with anxiety and her eyebrows are permanently lifted up at the center, wrinkling her brow in worry. Would an artistic director miss that? Would he gamble his entire season on this woman-child?

According to an article by ABC News, having a psychosis and an eating disorder together would be rare. Jonathan Abramowitz, associate chair of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who specializes in obsessive compulsive and anxiety disorder told ABC News, “It would be fairly rare to have a psychosis and an eating disorder. People in psychosis are not in touch with reality. With eating disorders and OCD, they are too in touch with reality.” As one would expect, anxiety disorders and OCD behaviors are common enough in the dance and ballet circles, including bulimia. But psychotics aren’t likely to be able to perform the prima ballerina role.

For me, like Wendy Perron, editor in chief of “Dance Magazine,” I thought Portman was convincing as a ballerina–her extreme thinness and willingness to expose her body easily. If you’ve seen the 2009 Bertrand Normand documentary on the give Mariinsky Theatre ballerinas, you’ll know what I mean. Portman moved well enough and the editing help convince us that she was dancing. American Ballet Theatre soloist (since 2007) Sarah Lane was Portman’s dance double.

Prima ballerinas are pretty tough and mentally strong. It’s unfortunate that this movie decided to portray both Nina and Beth as needy, unbalanced women and Nina’s stage mother, Erica, wasn’t much better. Would any professional company put up with Erica’s constant phone calls? Perron, in her “Black Swan–Better Than I Thought” blog entry, felt a “determined young dancer with a mother like that would’ve left home ages ago” Otherwise, in my opinion, Erica’s constant concern would have pulled Nina down.

Perron also had questions about the artistic director: Would he have time for mind games if he was working on choreography? She also wasn’t convinced by Kunis in her dancing scenes where the art director compares Lily to Nina.  More importantly, Perron wonders why not a happy ballet story?

I wonder why not a ballet story with real ballerinas in all the parts? Recently, Australia produced a story about a Communist Chinese ballet dancer, Li Cunxin, who came to the United States (Houston) and decided to stay. The lead role was played by three different dancers for different stages of Li’s life.

“Black Swan” has been compared to the 1948 movie “The Red Shoes.”  Roger Ebert, writing for the “Chicago Sun-Times” saw a co-relation between the virginal Nina (Portman) and the ingenue Vicky (Moira Shearer) and Thomas (Cassel) the artistic director and the autocratic impresario Boris (Anton Walbrook).

The team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (The Archers) wrote, directed and produced the British feature film, “The Red Shoes.” Somewhat based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale about a girl who has her adoptive mother buy her red shoes. In the fairytale, the girl is so selfish, she goes out dancing when her mother becomes ill but finds she cannot stop dancing.

In “The Red Shoes,” a new prima ballerina, Vicky,  falls in love with a rising composer with the same ballet company and she leaves the company to become his wife, but is lured back to dancing by the artistic director. She is asked to make a choice between her husband and her dancing. Chasing after her husband who is leaving her on her opening night, she falls to her death.

Shearer (1926-2004) was herself a ballet dancer debuting with Mona Inglesby’s International Ballet and then dancing with Sadler’s Wells Ballet School in 1941. She retired from ballet in 1953, but continued to act.  The ballet in the movie was choreographed by Robert Helpmann who plays the lead dancer in the fictional company. Leonide Massine who plays the choreographer of the company and the shoemaker in the ballet, choreographed his own part. The part of the prima ballerina who departs from the company to get married (thus allowing Vicky to become the prima ballerina) was played by French prima ballerina Ludmilla Tcherina (1924-2004).

Like “Mao’s Last Dancer,” “The Red Shoes” was a dance movies with real dancers in the main roles. “The Red Shoes” also used members of the London Royal Ballet for their fictional ballet company. With a bigger budget, “Black Swan” prefers the Hollywood tradition of making a movie with stars and filling in the dance. Portman and Kulis reportedly trained for about a year, but they are still not ballet dancers themselves. “Mao’s Last Dancer” was a happier tale based on reality while “The Red Shoes” thematically emphasized the role of women in the 1940s and 1950s.

In “The New Yorker,” Joan Acocella describes ballet movies as a genre and finds that “Black Swan” is a variation of “The Red Shoes.”

According to Acocella, in ballet movies, “the women are doomed not just because they try to be perfect but because they work so hard to that end that they have no time to go out and have sex with men. ‘The Turning Point’ and ‘Center Stage’ were recent variations on this scenario.”

Acocella concedes that movies prefer to portray artists as driven and tormented and rarely are movies made about those artists who did have contented lives that included families, but she also feels that “the portrayal of ballet dancers as anguished souls is more consistent, and I have a hard time not seeing it, in part, as sour grapes.”

One other notable thing: The difference in body types between “The Red Shoes” and “Black Swan.” Considering the recent controversy between the “New York Times” dance critic and a certain prima ballerina, it’s interesting to see what real ballerinas looked like in the 1940s compared to how one perceives they should look in the 2010s.

As a movie, “The Black Swan” does have some excellent special effects. Like Perron, we liked the on-stage transformation of Nina into a black swan with wings, but we also thought Aronosky went overboard with the CGI.  The moment Nina plucks a feather from her skin reminded us of the 1986 version  of “The Fly” with Jeff Goldblum. Nina’s leg becoming more anatomically like a swan’s seemed silly since people rarely notice the different joint leverage when drawing. Too much was revealed, taking away much of the thrill of this thriller.

We also didn’t like that shaky camera effect although in moderation it does give one the feeling her Nina’s psychological state. We thought the ending wasn’t logical–not with the white costume and the blood.

Like Acocella, I wonder about this tendency to portray ballerinas as doomed prima donnas and if this movie and its portrayal of Nina isn’t just another addition to the canon of dedicated career women who work so hard they have no time for men. Is it, as Acocella suggests sour grapes?

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