Darren Aronofsky's Dance of Delirium: Black Swan
by M. Faust
Its been a long, hard autumn, film fans, and you’ve had to suffer through too many movies that seem like leftovers from the summer sunstroke season. But Christmas is almost here, and while it’s got its share of avoidable fare (a Yogi Bear movie? Really?), two of the year’s most satisfying films are opening in local theaters in the next seven days.
You’ll have to wait until the December 25 for The King’s Speech, with Colin Firth in a sure-bet Oscar performance as King George VI. But this weekend brings Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, a movie that is about ballet in the same way that, say, The Hustler is about billiards. I can see some of your eyes glazing over at the very mention of ballet. Keep reading. On other hand, those of you who react to the prospect of a movie built around a performance of Swan Lake by thinking, eh, maybe that’s a movie I can take Grandma and Aunt Lucy to—you keep reading too. (Unless of course Grandma is a Dario Argento fan.)
Natalie Portman, who seems to have as strong a lock on an Oscar as Firth, stars as Nina, raised from birth to be a ballerina. (Though never a professional, Portman has studied dance since she was four.) Nina’s mother (Barbara Hershey) had a shot as a dancer but lost it when she became pregnant, so she has poured her life into seeing that her daughter achieves her dream. The result is a repressed perfectionist who has the misfortune to have her dream come true: promotion to the lead role in her company’s new production of Swan Lake.
(If you want to think that this unnamed company is the New York Ballet, the movie is happy for you to do so. The fact that Black Swan’s dance consultant, choreographer, and co-star is the New York Ballet’s Benjamin Millepied certainly doesn’t hurt that perception.)
Nina thinks she knows what she’s getting into, but she’s clearly in over her head. For one thing, she’s replacing the company’s long-time star Beth (Winona Ryder). Beth is being shuffled not only off the stage but out of the bed of the company’s master Thomas (a wonderfully imperious Vincent Cassel). Will Nina be expected to take over that role too? It’s a frightening proposition for a girl who, if not actually a virgin, is virginal in the way of someone who has never considered anything out of life than practicing until her feet bleed.
Thomas has one reservation about Nina. Her flawless technique is perfect for the ballet’s role of the White Swan. But she lacks the passion for the parallel role of the Black Swan, and that’s not something that comes from studying.
To this point nothing about Black Swan sounds out of the way of any behind-the-scenes performance film. We expect trials and failures on the way to triumph as our heroine blossoms into the fullness of her art.
At least, that’s what you might expect if you didn’t know that this was a Darren Aronofsky film. Black Swan is being compared to The Wrestler as a story about a performer who tosses her life away in pursuit of art. (Aronofsky obsessively charts the physical rigors of a dancer’s life: you’ll never look at a neck the same way again.)
I was reminded more of his Requiem for a Dream, with its relentless acceleration leading to a hallucinogenic finale. Black Swan is considerably less brutal, though still awash in horror movie tropes: It inevitably refers to The Red Shoes and All About Eve (Mila Kunis nearly steals the film as Nina’s free-loving rival), but also to Carrie, Argento’s Suspiria and Opera, and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion.
Critics who seem ashamed to admit they like it are calling it “kitsch” and “camp.” With its shifting mix of dreams, fantasy, delusion and delirium Black Swan is all but guaranteed to frustrate anyone who wants to come away knowing what “really” happened. It left me giddy, satisfied, and even willing to go see a production of Swan Lake.
The Los Angeles press junket for Black Swan took place at a most appropriate venue—the venerable Pantages theater, which can best be described as Sheas Buffalo multiplied by Salvatore’s Italian Gardens. Flanked by his stars and collaborators, Darren Aronofsky grins like a throwback to a 1930s movie, almost goofily dapper in a clipped moustache and a scarf that, in LA, could only be described as ornamental. He started the press conference by talking about how the film took 10 years to get made, even after Natalie Portman was signed for it:
Aronofsky: I’ve been a fan of Natalie since I saw her in The Professional. Her manager is an old friend of mine from college, so I had an inside line to meet her. We met [in 2000] in Times Square at the old Howard Johnson, which is now an American Apparel. Shows you where America is going. I had really early ideas about the film; she says I had the entire film in my head, which is a complete lie. I tried to develop it, but it was a really tough film. Getting into the ballet world proved to be extremely challenging. Most of the time when you say, “I want to make a movie about your world,” all the doors open up and you can do anything and see anything you want. The ballet world really wasn’t interested in us hanging out. So it took a long time…and over the years Natalie would say, “I’m getting too old to play a dancer, you’ve gotta hurry up!”
AV: Were you attempting to do a story like The Wrestler but from a feminine perspective?
Aronofsky: I don’t think there’s really that much difference. It doesn’t matter if you’re an aging 50-something-year-old wrestler or an ambitious 20-something-year-old ballet dancer…if they’re truthful to who they are and they’re expressing something real, then audiences will connect. That’s always been the promise of cinema. That’s why we can see a film about a seven-year-old girl in Iran or an immortal superhero in America…it doesn’t matter, as long as they’re people.
AV: Can we assume that there’s a little bit of you in Thomas, the manipulative ballet master in the film?
Aronofsky: I wish I could be [that] manipulative. I think I’m really way, way too direct. I think I’ve scared away a lot of A-list actors. [They] normally say, “You want me to do what? For how long? For how little money?” So I’ve lost a whole lot of movie stars along the way. A more manipulative director would say, “Oh, it’s not going to be that hard…come in, we’ll have fun.” But that’s when wars start—”You told me there would be sushi on set everyday!” So, you know...I’m a little bit too direct, too straightforward I think.
AV: Can you talk about getting your stars to keep up the rigorous habits of ballet dancers while you were filming?
Aronofsky: We had no money for the film, and we had to push a lot of times. I actually don’t mind pushing cause it means I get an extra two, three weeks to get my shit together, but I found out Natalie was screaming at our mutual friend her manager that she had to live on carrots and almonds for another three weeks, so she was the one who suffered the most from not eating.
AV: How much of an influence was the classic Powell-Pressburger ballet movie The Red Shoes?
Aronofsky: I had heard of The Red Shoes but I hadn’t seen it until Scorsese did the restoration. It’s a masterpiece, an unbelievable film. I noticed the similarities between the stories because we both went back to ballet and pulled the different characters and ended up in similar places. But I wasn’t really influenced by it; I really could never even try to be influenced by it because it’s such a masterpiece and the dance sequences were so ahead of their time. I just kept it in the back [of my mind] and said it’s 60 years ago and most people may not know about it.
AV: There are famous stories about actors who lose themselves in their roles like Nina does in her dance.
Aronofsky: I’ve worked with some method actors and—maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I think that’s all nonsense. It’s film acting and you just have to be on when the camera’s going. Sure, if it’s a very intense scene you might want to keep that energy up while the crew is resetting. But even when it’s “action” there’s still [waving to indicate the flurry of activity on a set] a camera here and all these people moving around. It’s impossible to pretend all that doesn’t exist. That’s why they’re so good, that they’re able to make believe that’s not there convincingly. But the second you hear “cut” someone is coming over to adjust a mike or put powder on your face. But whatever works. Not to scare away method actors. Actually I do want to scare away method actors. It’s a pain.
AV: The Wrestler was a more naturalistic movie compared to the surrealism here. Can you say anything about the difference of approach?
Aronofsky: A lot of times you figure out what you’re doing when you’re doing the press, because you start talking about it and become aware of it. The whole cinéma vérité, hand-held thing was a big risk to bring into a ballet film, because I had never seen a suspenseful film that had a hand-held camera. I didn’t know if in a really intense scene people would wonder why Natalie wouldn’t turn to the cameraman and go “Help!” But I liked that a man could hold the camera, really move the camera in ways that you can’t in any other ways, and the result of that is that the first third of the film has a very different feel than the last half of the film because it has a very naturalistic feel. I think that’s kinda cool cause it makes people think they’re watching a very different kind of movie that [won’t] freak out the way it freaks out.
AV: A world-renowned dancer publicly called this very damaging movie for dance and for all the people who are compelled to dance. Do you have a reaction?
Aronofsky: I saw that report, and I thought it was really unfortunate, because we’ve had very, very different reactions from dancers elsewhere. I think so many dancers are relieved that there is finally a ballet movie that takes ballet as a serious art and not a place to have a love affair. [The most popular ballets] are incredibly dark. Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet, and of course Swan Lake. We took the fairy-tale of Swan Lake and translated all the characters into our movie reality. It definitely shows the challenges and the darkness and the reality of how hard it is to be a ballet dancer, but it also represents the beauty of the art, the transcendence that’s possible within the art. There’s going to be people that have issues, but large and by far, the dancers we’ve talked with are like, “Finally…we have a real movie about ballet.”
AV: Do you enjoy playing with genre conventions?
Aronofsky: I’m not really much of a genre guy; this was my best attempt at a genre film. I think audiences don’t need that anymore. Audiences are very sophisticated; as long as it’s fun, and entertaining, and that’s what I was trying to make. And I think it’s different, which is what people who are bombarded by so many types of media are looking for…a very different experience.
Click here to continue reading an extended version of the interview with Aronofsky and cast members.
Watch the trailer for Black Swan
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