Hollywood has not been kind to ballet. If we believe what we see in the movies, classical dance is a world of sadistic directors, tortured ingenues, back-stabbing divas and overbearing stage mothers. Cinema’s most revered ballet film, The Red Shoes (1948), climaxes with its heroine fleeing her dressing room and falling from a window into the path of a train that runs over her feet. The most memorable scene in The Turning Point (1977) is an alfresco cat fight between Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine, as washed-up ballerinas in evening gowns who clobber each other with their purses.
No wonder director Darren Aronofsky considers his new dance movie, Black Swan, a companion piece to The Wrestler. The high art of ballet may seem far removed from the trashy spectacle of a staged brawl. And Black Swan’s delicate Natalie Portman could not be more unlike The Wrestler’s brutish Mickey Rourke. But wrestling and ballet are both insular worlds full of arcane ritual and physical torture. And as actors, Portman and Rourke were not content to simulate athletic technique; they submitted to gruelling regimes, incurring injuries in the name of art.
Portman, who had studied ballet as a child, spent 10 months training for Black Swan, a psychological thriller about a ballerina whose sanity spins out of control when she’s cast as the lead in Swan Lake. She does 90 per cent of her own dancing, and her performance, as an actress and a dancer, is a tour de force. “I was really impressed with her,” Veronica Tennant, a former prima ballerina with the National Ballet, told me after seeing the film. “Swan Lake is one of the most challenging roles. It’s like going out to the Olympics every day. And she was completely convincing.”
Portman deserves the Oscar for her performance, and is considered a front-runner. But Black Swan is hardly typical Academy fare. Hailed as brilliant and outlandish in the same breath, it’s a melodrama with an erotic edge that flirts with camp, then morphs into electrifying operatic horror.
With echoes of All About Eve, Red Shoes and Repulsion, it plays like a deranged pas de deux between Hitchcock and Cronenberg. In that sense, it’s a wild departure from The Wrestler, which was grounded in realism and pumped with sentiment. Like other ballet movies, Black Swan taps all the usual clichés of backstage cruelty. But unlike The Turning Point, it toys with them: the melodrama is deliberate, and the story mirrors the plot of the ballet being performed until, driven by a propulsive score, they merge in a shattering finale.
Nina (Portman), a young New York ballerina, is cast in Swan Lake by a diabolical artistic director (Vincent Cassel), who seduces his anxious protege while sidelining the company’s veteran star (Winona Ryder). Nina must play a double role, as both the innocent White Swan, which suits her style, and the evil Black Swan, which requires her to express a dark side she’s never explored. As the director pushes Nina to surrender her inhibitions, nightmarish delusions start to overtake her psyche—while her shoulders become inflamed with a mysterious rash. Tipping her over to the dark side is a classic bad girl, a rival dancer played by Mila Kunis (Forgetting Sarah Marshall), whose brazen insolence recalls a young Angelina Jolie. And of course there’s a dragon lady of a stage mother: Barbara Hershey channelling Joan Crawford.
Although a dream team of American ballet talent helped create Black Swan, the movie is rife with misconceptions, according to Tennant. “In the ballet world,” she says, “you don’t try to get the role by having private audiences with your director.” Also, the film implies that having one dancer play the light and dark sides of the Swan Queen is boldly experimental, whereas it’s standard practice. And the lead role is always rotated among various principals during a run, because it’s too taxing for a single dancer. But we don’t care. In the real world, after all, women don’t turn into swans. What’s exhilarating is the visceral reality of Portman’s high-wire performance—in her eyes, you can see the fear of an actress undergoing her own metamorphosis, and landing a leap of faith with unearthly poise.