Everything is beautiful at the ballet, or so the song goes about the escape from a less fairytale life to a Chorus Line.
The soaring music and classic ballet of Swan Lake is the tableau of this tale that runs the gamut of a simple story of the good White Swan paired against the malevolence of the Black Swan.
For those not familiar with it, the back story of Swan Lake is a bit mysterious: Siegfried, celebrating his 21st birthday, stumbles on a pond with swans, one with a coronet. His mentor, Von Rothbart, has cast a spell on the entire herd of swans, who are really enchanted girls, with the pond composed of the tears of their parents. Siegfried, unaware of Von Rothbart’s dark side, falls in love with the beautiful white swan, Odette.
Von Rothbart’s beautiful daughter, Odile, is disguised as a black swan, who seduces Siegfried. When danced, the roles of white and black swan are commonly danced by the same ballerina.
Von Rothbart’s spell makes Odette a swan by day, but woman by night -- thus Siegfried can see her as a woman.
Tchaikovsky is said to be the first symphonist to construct a ballet, and was an admirer of Delibes and Drigo, ballet composers of the day.
Darren Aronofsky directed the critically acclaimed The Wrestler, which brought Mickey Rourke an Oscar nod in 2008. The story of struggle has echoes of that one, with the ugliness of a wrestler who abandoned his only child and romances a pole dancer, comparable here to the obsessive devotion of a mother, Erica Sayers (Barbara Hershey) to her daughter Nina’s (Natalie Portman) obsession with perfection.
Heavy makeup masks the beauty of Barbara Hershey, the only woman to have been twice cast by Martin Scorsese in a major role (The Last Temptation of Christ and Boxcar Bertha).
Nina and Erica share an upper Westside apartment, and the movie opens with her in a casket of pink satin, and a room filled with stuffed pink animals. She is tackled and stifled rather than tickled pink into a little girl’s world.
The ballet company is ruled by the aristocratic Thomas LeRoy (Vincent Cassel), the literal king who commands that they will re-do the classics this year and need to re-cast the role with a new star, an act of utter humiliation to the principal ballerina, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), who then declares her retirement.
LeRoy tells Nina that her virginal and child-like purity make her the ideal White Swan, but the question is whether she can conjure up the seductiveness and carnality to be the Black Swan.
We can track Nina easily by her flocked pink coat, as she furtively spies a new dancer on the subway. She exits at Lincoln Center, and the new girl misses the stop.
Nina tries out for the part fervently, but we notice a crop of what seem to be vesicles on her shoulder -- later worsened to deeper self-inflicted excoriations.
The new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), bursts in late, interrupting Nina’s tryout, which was going weakly. The triple entente of mother and older and younger rivals, as well as the demanding and pressuring expectations of LeRoy, who presses Nina about intimate details of her life, set the stage for the inevitable pressure.
LeRoy hectors and bullies her and tries to steal a kiss, but she bites him. Adding to the tenseness, her cell phone constantly rings, lighting up with “Mom.”
Portman took nearly a year off before the film to study the rigors and athleticism of ballet. The details of the curing of the ballet shoes, the stretches, the positions, the pain, the consummate emersion into the task are real, and echoed in Nina’s bath -- she submerges herself and finds drops of blood.
This is not just an excursion into competition and rivalry, or the beauty of the ballet, but also a psychological thriller with uncertainties about who is good, what the quest is, and who exactly is a rival.
Nina endures being called a whore, suspected of sleeping her way to the role of a lifetime. Mommy Dear gets a perfect cake with strawberry crème icing and large pink roses that Nina cannot stomach. When it’s rejected, it seems aimed for the trash, when Nina cajoles mommy into saving it from the dust bin.
Lily is the perfect vamp and counterpoint to Nina’s fairy princess. She is from San Francisco, free and uninhibited – her back is streaked with lightning-bolt tattoos declaring her unconventionality.
She seems the natural choice for the role; but oddly, LeRoy picks the unlikely one.
Winona Ryder’s Beth is pitiful as well as spiteful, and then suicidal. Erica hovers and dotes, controls and obsesses on her pink-struck child, who forced her to abandon her own career in the ballet corp.. Who is Nina’s opponent?
The pas de deux between Lily and Nina is more intense. Nina’s childlike persona and inexperience seems a vulnerability to the worldly Lily, not so delicate a flower. Is she a venus flytrap or a delicate rose? Is her invitation to friendship and fun sincere or a ruse?
Benjamin Millepied (David/Siegfried) is indeed a real life dancer, principal at the New York City ballet and formerly of the Paris Opera. His name, odd for a principal dancer, means one thousand feet. He is the choreographer for the movie, but uncredited for that work. He and Portman are now engaged and she is expecting their baby.
The movie skillfully turns on dreams and imaginings -- or are they hallucinations? Nina strives to be perfect, but slowly psychologically begins to unravel, spinning, spinning, spinning, out of control, out of touch.
Portman is spellbinding in her portrayal, as a little princess, as a woman not ready for the choices required, but completely willing to drive herself to oblivion, as Odette and Siegfried were driven into the lake.
The forces pressuring performance perfection, the malediction of misdirected mentorship, and the pitting of good versus evil, internal versus external, propel Nina and the viewer through this amazing movie, which also has stellar performances by Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, and Vincent Cassels.
Is psychopathology imposed by others? Can you tell the demons to behave? I anticipate that Ms. Portman, already a Golden Globe winner for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture Drama, will also be in contention for an Academy Award.