Many years ago, a friend and I took our husbands to see the Bolshoi Ballet’s “Swan Lake.” A better choice of words would probably be “dragged them.” Their enthusiasm at the final curtain call had more to do with the evening’s being over than with the breathtaking score and extraordinary technique we had seen onstage. (The other couple later divorced, but I don’t think the two events were related.)

How different the reaction might have been if we could have promised a “Swan Lake” with psychotic hallucinations, bloody self-mutilation, a graphic masturbation scene, and ecstasy-fueled girl-on-girl action.

Black Swan is not your grandmother’s ballet movie.

The story centers around a dedicated young dancer, Nina, who has been awarded the prestigious role of the Swan Queen in a new production of “Swan Lake.” We hear (many times) that the part is really two roles in one – and the Svengali of an artistic director doubts she has what it takes to play both. Nina’s precision and her virginal demeanor make her a logical choice for the white swan, Odette. However, she must tap into her own uncharted territories of passion and seduction to become the black swan, Odile.

This is set up as a challenge for any dancer. It’s a particularly lethal situation for Nina, who isn’t dancing with a full deck to begin with, and what follows is the rapid disintegration of her mind and body.

Natalie Portman plays Nina with an intimacy and intensity that is, at times, difficult to watch. Pre-Oscars buzz has Portman in the lead for the Best Actress Academy Award, and the odds certainly seem to be in her favor. She has already won 18 various regional film festival and critics’ awards, is nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award and a BAFTA (the British equivalent of the Oscar). Most recently, Portman won the Golden Globe, beating, among other heavyweights, Oscar-winners Halle Berry and Nicole Kidman.

As Nina, Portman gives the kind of performance that the Academy loves to reward. She’s a fine, intelligent young actress certainly, but her grueling transformation from actor to ballet dancer gives her the edge.  Historically, Oscars have often gone to actors and actresses who dramatically changed their appearance for a part – Charlize Theron in Monster, Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice. Portman didn’t have to make herself unattractive per se, but she studied ballet up to 9 hours a day for a year and lost more than 20 pounds (she is only 5’3” and was quite slender to begin with). Doing most of her own stunts – or rather, her own pliés and pirouettes – also adds to her Oscar-worthiness quotient.

I may be in the minority, but I was disappointed in Portman. Her very first line in the film, explaining a “Swan Lake”-inspired dream, made me worry. Was she going to speak in that tentative, breathy, childish voice the entire movie? (The answer was Yes.) She begins the film stressed and repressed, an exquisite womanchild who lives only to achieve balletic “perfection.” Halfway through, she’s more stressed and no less repressed. By the close of the movie, she has taken a swan dive off the deep end mentally and physically. Through much nervousness and some real terror, we never see any strength in Nina.  Even when she is at the top of her form as a dancer, it is to please others: her ex-dancer mother or the company’s director, who tries to open her up to her own potential through the time-honored tradition of sexual harassment and assault. Nina’s response to an uninvited groping session?  “Please…?”

Whether it is the fault of the actress, or more likely the writers and director, the performance lacks the depth and nuance I expect from a Best Actress winner.

The other women’s roles in the movie are similarly one-dimensional. Barbara Hershey plays Nina’s mother, a horrifying cross between Gypsy’s ambitious Mama Rose and the demented mother from Carrie. As she frequently reminds Nina, she herself was a dancer but gave up her career for her child. She infantilizes Nina, cutting her fingernails for her and keeping her a virtual prisoner in a pink palace of a little girl’s bedroom. Winona Ryder is the bitter, over-the-hill prima ballerina who is forced into retirement when Nina’s star begins to rise. She rants, drinks to excess and throws herself in front of a moving car.

These are both technically solid performances, but each seems more like a cartoon character than a fully realized human being. Even the corps de ballet is presented as a coven of bitchy balletic cats. Again, I have to wonder if the problem is in the directorial choices rather than the acting.

We are given one other archetypal female, Lily, played with great gusto by Mila Kunis. Lily is the whore to Nina’s virgin, the black swan to Nina’s white. Of all these characters, Lily is the one that has some ambiguity. She is, at times, both rival and lover. However, her character is always seen through the paranoid schizophrenic eyes of Nina (as are everyone and everything in the movie), so at film’s end, the jury is still out.

Black Swan was directed by Darren Aronofsky and in some ways feels like a companion piece to his earlier The Wrestler.  In both, he focuses on the inseparable mind-body relationship of extreme athletes and how they are driven to punish themselves. Aronofsky has created a taught and thrilling movie with Black Swan.  His artistic vision is crystal clear throughout, but he’s heavy-handed, often to the detriment of his actors. There’s a lot of obvious craft going on – recurring images of mirrors, cryptic rehearsal studios, symbolic uses of blood, gritty shots of dancers’ cramped, distorted feet. Had Aronofsky paid as much attention to character development, we might have related more to his heroine. As it stands, we may feel sympathy for her, but we are never given a glimpse of how her situation could possibly improve. She is a victim throughout. Very sad, but not very interesting.

Black Swan is billed as a psychological thriller, and it aspires to be a serious, almost art-house movie. In reality, it’s a horror film that leverages all the trappings of that genre. We have the virginal victim, demonic villainesses, lights that go on and off by themselves, pictures with eyes that follow you (yes, really), blood and gore, and what is meant to be, no doubt, a shocking ending.

Horror films are not typically known for sensitive, dimensional depictions of women. In fact, they work best when they serve up stereotypes. Black Swan really succeeds as horror. There are several scenes that are still haunting me – one, in particular, that depicts Nina’s solution to a hangnail is thoroughly chilling.  And it’s a magnificent piece of cinema in terms of art direction, sets, costumes, and musical score. If only the women’s characters had been as fully thought through as the camera angles, Black Swan would have soared much higher.

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  • Elizabeth Willse February 3, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    Alexandra, I love your perspective and analysis of films and the movie industry.

    I’ve read a lot about Black Swan, but suspected it was too dark for me. You’ve confirmed my instinct that it would be horrifying, rather than artfully interesting to me. I think I’ll stick with reading analyses of it.