Hell is Other Ballerinas

I finally saw Black Swan, and so did Ashley, right before the big holiday weekend. She had a lot to say about it, including the fact that Mila Kunis was really sexy. I thought that Winona Ryder didn’t get enough screen time. (It’s bullshit: she’s still a fantastic actress, but now every online story about her has to include the word “shoplift” somewhere [that was nine years ago, people], and she has to play a jealous ballet has-been with a mangled leg.) Both Kunis and Ryder, however, have to play second fiddle to the all-enveloping psychoses of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), the perfectionist who’s going to play the Swan Queen in her ballet company’s production of Swan Lake – that is, if her hallucinations don’t kill her first.

It’s certainly something new. It starts out with the same painful realism as Darren Aronofsky’s previous film, The Wrestler (2008), following its heroine back and forth from practices with sleazy ballet director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) to the apartment she shares with her beloved smother mother (Barbara Hershey), a woman who cares just a little too much about her “sweet girl.” But as she keeps itching that rash on her back, and as she keeps suspecting that Lily (Kunis) is trying to steal her spotlight, Nina snaps and starts losing it. Black Swan turns into a record of her persecution fantasies, her “lezzy wet dream,” her imagined murders and suicides, and every other psychological dysfunction Aronofsky can cram into two hours.

Portman is incredible as she plays multiple sides of the same self-destructive diva, and Black Swan beautifully mixes observational details about her life and relationships with free-flowing visual sensuality; Aronofsky is clearly enamored with the look of blood against flesh, feathers, and tutus. However, as the film retreats into Nina’s head, it does wrong by its supporting cast, who become mere accessories to her madness – especially Cassel, who – although he excels at it – has little to do but stand around being lecherous and unethical. At least Kunis gets several scenes to steal, as does Hershey, who creepily channels Piper Laurie in Carrie.

But like Polanski’s Repulsion, from which it steals a few cues, this is a one-woman psychodrama about one hell of a crack-up. It’s never clear whether Black Swan‘s surreal visions – which also delve deeply into Cronenberg’s The Fly – will end up amounting to much, or if the lesson is just that art is madness, obsession leads to death, etc., etc., but it’s a gorgeous, brutal trip while it lasts, with some juicy insights about the fruits of sexual repression. You could say it’s All About Eve (or, more appropriately, Showgirls) in the ballet world – but with Nina as both Eve and Margo, a duality that culminates in a disturbing, amazingly weird reinterpretation of Tchaikovsky. With, as always, several pillows worth of feathers and buckets of blood.

2 Comments

Filed under Cinema, Sexuality

2 responses to “Hell is Other Ballerinas

  1. Wasn’t Barbara Hershey amazing in this? How is she not getting more attention?

    • She was amazing! It’s kind of an outrage. Hershey, Kunis, and Ryder should just be bundled up into one really scary supporting actress and heavily awarded – I mean, they ARE all sort of the same character in this, right? (I.e., Nina?)

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