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'Black Swan:' Ballerinas Have Hallucinations Too

By Donna Perlmutter
Published: Thursday, December 23, 2010, at 02:40PM
black_swan Niko Tavernise

Natalie Portman in BLACK SWAN

Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky takes it to the max.

So say goodbye to the “Swan Lake” that puts you in mind of tutus and tiaras, gossamer and moonlight, the achingly poignant fairy tale of a maiden turned to swan, waiting for a heroic Prince’s love to break the curse and return her to human form.

Forget that your heart melts in the ballet’s second-act pas de deux where that pitiable creature, as Odette the Swan Queen, yields herself in his arms, yearning for womanhood and to become his fully adored one.

Aronofsky tosses all that aside – real life, in this movie, has more to do with base instincts than purity of heart. So here, the focus is on Odile, the Black Swan, in all her evil trickery. She seduces the innocent Prince, of course, blocking out his memory of all that lakeside love he swore himself to.

In the ballet world, “Swan Lake” poses a dramatic challenge to the dancer who can portray these two sides of one being. And here Aronofsky plays a sadistic game with that very difficulty an incipient ballerina in real life has: transforming her young-girl universe – a thing of talismanic pink satin ribbons, pink toe shoes, sugar plums, good fairies (and yes, in his movie, pink stuffed animals) -- into that of a cunningly willful dominatrix who can control, mesmerize and bring down anyone standing in her way.

What fun Aronofsky has riffing on his feat to convert Nina (played by the dewy beauty Natalie Portman) -- she of the dancerly pale skin, slender pre-pubescent body -- into Odile’s flame-breathing, sex bomb. Now that’s a leap from the character’s definition in the ballet itself, where she needs only to flash commanding smiles, stiffen her spine and snap out her 32 fouéttes.

To accomplish his feat of conversion Aronofsky uses Nina’s hallucinations –taking her from innocence to drug/alcohol highs, from virginity to same-sex bacchanals, from obedient daughterhood to wild defiance.

He also sets up a treacherous character, Lily (Mila Kunis), who nearly topples Nina as competitor for her coveted role and as the same dancer who guides her on all of the above excursions.

Nor does he miss any of the ballet backstage rituals: bulimic trips to the toilet to vomit up misbegotten meals (don’t worry, we see only the feet), almost-scary camera close-ups of breaking down and softening new point shoes, crushing resin into their tips, sewing on of satin ribbons, bleeding of toes. And then there’s the claustrophobic mother (Barbara Hershey) who closets her daughter in the tiny box of an apartment where doorways are as wide as rooms.

All of it shows us the strict, cloistered atmosphere of a ballet dancer -- like a nun, like an acolyte -- and the road she travels from ethereal fairy tale to hyper-real fantasy-horror-hallucination.

Finally, there is music director/composer Clint Mansell’s use of Tchaikovsky’s miraculous score, without which the film would assuredly not have the same impact. It cleaves us to the screen drama within the ballet. He sorts and sifts out every potent strain of the music, transposing its themes to lurking piano backgrounds, chamber-sized arrangments, in fact, all manner of instrumentations that accompany scenes in motion. An amazing, single-minded achievement.

"Black Swan" is in theaters nationwide, including at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live.

Donna Perlmutter is an award-winning critic, journalist and author. Formerly the chief music/dance critic for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, she contributes to the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

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