Pointe Blank: The Tragedy of Black Swan

By Victoria Looseleaf

Waterboarding is nothing compared to wearing pointe shoes. Or at least that’s what Natalie Portman would have us believe of her Nina Sayers, the ballerina she portrays in Darren Aronofsky’s latest flick, Black Swan. Indeed, the gorgeous actor, who studied ballet as a girl and trained intensely for the role – alas, she is not up to terpsichorean snuff – called pointe shoes, “torture devices,” adding, “they feel very medieval.”

Dubbed a horror/thriller/cum psychological study set in the rarefied world of ballet, the $13 million Fox Searchlight film will turn little girls off to the art form for – well, at least half a Twitter generation – or two. Coming some 60 years after Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterpiece, The Red Shoes, which had tutu-wearing tots flocking to the barre, Swan is, like its namesake character, Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, much more of a bipolar affair: With emphasis on the manic, including a lesbian make-out scene – talk about ruffled feathers – and food and drug issues (the banes of ballerinas), the film takes us on a terrifying, all too real, unreal ride.

Moira Shearer in a moment of pre-death ecstasy in The Red Shoes.

Portman, vying to be the Swan Queen, is not only up against herself – can she transform from the white, virginal Odette to the evil, dark Odile of the mythological dance tale – but is also up against her rival, Lily, perfunctorily played by Mila Kunis. Nina, too, is battling her mother, Barbara Hershey, a cornucopia of aborted dancing dreams, who also bears an uncanny resemblance to Portman, minus the Botox and collagen lips. Then there’s Thomas Leroy, the ballet company’s artistic director, here played by the fantastic (and French – who knew), Vincent Cassel, the powerhouse in Mesrine and Eastern Promises (and, I hear, those Oceans movies).

In any case, let the games begin.

Vincent Cassel shows some fancy footwork of his own.

Cassel has said he took his cues from Michael Bennett (Chorus Line), Balanchine and Baryshnikov – not Anton Walbrook’s Lermentov from The Red Shoes, who had taken his cues from Serge Diaghilev, the titanic impresario of the Ballets Russes (who may or may have not driven Nijinsky insane…), making Black Swan a Chinese box of elephantine proportions (or, as the New Yorker said, “a tray of Russian Easter eggs.”)

Showing skin: sexy and swan-like, sans pointe shoes

Aronofsky has likened this film, which took him a number of years to make (he was surprised that the insular ballet world was so difficult to penetrate, making the late Robert Altman’s The Company look either like child’s play or absolutely brilliant), to The Wrestler. Yes, there’s bloodletting and backstabbing, but comparisons end there (what – no staple guns?). Nor do we see Portman’s Nina behind a deli counter slicing ham like we did Mickey Rourke, though Winona Ryder, in a sadistic bit of casting is the pushed-aside prima, who, after trying to kill herself ends up in the psycho ward.

The White Swan and Her Prince

What we do see, however, is an odd mixture of melodrama, sumptuous photography and choreographic interruptus. With dances by Benjamin Millepied (how great a name is that for a ballet denizen, now Portman’s beau), the footwork, replete with muscular spins and leaps (none of which were executed by Portman but by ABT soloist Sarah Lane – shades of Flashdance), are akin to a series of fragmented, neo MTV-like moves. As for Portman’s arms (portman de bras, hahaha), let’s just say they’re serviceable, but she’s no Pavlova. Then there’s Portman’s growing list of bodily aberrations: coarse hairs inexplicably sprout from her back a la Cronenberg/Goldblum’s The Fly; her fingernails are shed like snakeskins; and the requisite bloodied feet emerging from pink satin pointe shoes, which may horrify ballet newbies, are, sadly, old hat to career dancers.

Is it the pointe shoe, then, that tortures, or the notion that Black Swan, by missing the mark, proves that this most ethereal of art forms can never again reach the cinematic heights it did with Moira Shearer, a true ballerina, who danced her way to death and into the world’s consciousness in the Powell classic. I wanted to love this film, and though I don’t totally agree with Carla Fracci, erstwhile ballet superstar who called Black Swan, “an absurd film that renders a terrible service to the ballet world,” I can recommend it to masochists, voyeurs and thrill-seekers. Which, I suppose, would account for a fairly large audience these days.

What’s the pointe?

As for Portman snagging an Oscar, it would be like Nicole Kidman’s win for donning that nose in The Hours. Jennifer Homans, in an epilogue to her new history-of-ballet book, Apollo’s Angels (Knopf), declares that ballet is dying (I disagree, but that’s another story). Let’s hope, then, that Aronofsky and company aren’t nailing the coffin shut with Black Swan.