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December 07, 2010

Sex, Ballet, Body Image: "Black Swan" Puts Natalie Portman Centerstage

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"Black Swan," the new film starring Natalie Portman, is a fascinating character study of a tortured young ballerina struggling to figure out where she fits -- in the world and on the stage. The film is also a reminder of how when it comes to sex, society still puts women in one of only two categories: the Madonna or the whore.

But before I get to the sex, a little about the rest of the movie. It had several huge advantages before I even walked in the door. First, I’m a big ballet fan and have been since I was a kid. I’ve seen all the major ballets several times, including “Swan Lake” -- and in fact, I saw "Black Swan" just a short jete from Lincoln Center where I attended most of those performances.

Second, I’m a big Natalie Portman fan. Ever since she flashed those big, dark eyes at Hollywood at the age of 13 in  "The Professional," she’s been a favorite of mine. Not to mention she’s a New Yorker and one of the smarter members of young Hollywood.

Ever hear of her getting drunk and flashing photogs outside a nightclub? Um, no.

"Black Swan" is a psychological thriller about Nina Sayers (Portman), a New York ballerina who’s just been cast as the lead in a new production of “Swan Lake.” The role is a demanding one which requires Nina to play two characters: the delicate and innocent White Swan and the sinful and seductive Black Swan.

Nina is a natural as the White Swan, but when it comes to the Black Swan, she has difficulty bringing forth the passion and attack that part of the role requires. Then there’s Lily (Mila Kunis), a fellow ballerina that Nina fears is out to take the part away from her. Lily is outgoing and provocative, and a perfect Black Swan -- something that ballet master, Thomas Leroy, played by a yummy Vincent Cassel, never fails to remind Nina.


Director Darren Aronofsky Rocks It

You don’t have to like ballet to like this movie, but if you like ballet, the rehearsal and performance scenes are an added treat. Director Darren Aronofsky does a great job of showing the exquisite beauty on the stage and the physical brutality off the stage.

He also makes the effective choice of keeping the camera intimately close to Portman with lots of close-ups of those pained, dark eyes. For example, when Nina walks down the wintry streets in her pink coat and tightly wound scarf, the camera is relentlessly on her face, just waiting for the slightest crack in the façade.

In fact, I’d have to see it again to be sure, but I don’t think there’s one scene without Portman in it. It’s claustrophobic and intense, and you never quite know if Nina is cracking up or if there is some other menace in play. Not until the end, that is.

Nina lives with her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), an overbearing former ballerina, and her room is decorated as if for a 12-year-old: awash in pink, and cluttered with fluffy, stuffed animals. And of course there’s a ballerina music box that plays Tchaikovsky’s iconic “Swan Lake” theme.


The Sexual Dilemma

Which brings me to the sex I promised. Nina’s struggle to shatter her carefully created, sexless, woman-child world reminded me of the kind of struggle many women experience.

Our enjoyment of taking charge of our lives and our own sexuality is still seen as “not nice.” We can only be the White Swan or the Black Swan, but never a little of both. The movie explores that theme because as fearful as Nina is of Lily, she’s fascinated and attracted by her.

An attraction which culminates in a steamy girl-on-girl sex scene.

Now it would take a whole other post to discuss the impossible standards and body image issues that inevitably and legitimately come up when discussing the ballet world, but when it comes to Nina, those extremes for me were less about the ballet world than about the world at large.

When it comes to the dancing, the excellent camera work brings a fresh perspective and excitement whether you're familiar with the choreography or not. Though Portman probably didn’t do any of the en pointe work, the editing is so seamless that the audience can’t tell.

Natalie’s curtain call will be provided by Oscar, because she’s a toe shoe-in for a nomination.

Here are some other opinions on the movie from the blogosphere.

Melissa Silverstein at Women and Hollywood talks about the body image issues:

Portman is beautiful in the role. She pushed herself very hard for a year to get into “ballet shape” losing 20 pounds. She’s gone on every talk show saying how she didn’t eat and people are falling over themselves praising her for her dedication and commitment.

Sure, it’s great to show her dedication and we all remember how several high profile men have lost (and gained weight) for parts and then in turn garnered awards and recognition. Robert DeNiro for Raging Bull, Tom Hanks for Philadelphia and Castaway, Christian Bale for The Machinist and American Psycho.

But here’s a young woman who is being praised nonstop for revealing that she stopped eating and even though it is a movie the amount of praise that is being heaped on her gives me pause.

Becky Sharper at The Pursuit of Harpyness is also concerned about Portman's weight loss for the role:

Natalie Portman’s new movie Black Swan, for which the already slender actress lost 20 lbs. in order to play a prima ballerina, has reignited the debate about whether ballet is pro-ana. Portman’s remarks about the “discipline” involved in losing weight didn’t help.

Gabrielle Adele at The Young Folks loved the movie:

Aronofsky has created a visceral and haunting depiction of the ballet world. He focuses on shots of the dancers’ feet, showing the stress and damage ballet has caused. He balances the tones between the light and dark expertly. His filmmaking is very stylish and mature; it draws you into Nina’s world effortlessly.

Blair Barnes at The Bee Charmer Review also like it:

The genius of the film hinges on this point, Nina's duality - both good and evil - co-existing within one person. The director really takes this to a whole new level as we see Nina battling her own psyche (sometimes in some shocking scenes) and interestingly developing the physical characteristics of the swan.

Rama at Rama's Screen did too:

If you’re into production design, you’re gonna love what they did for Black Swan, if you love music, you’re gonna love the selection they have for this film, if you love costume or sound, you’re gonna love how they’re presented in this film as well.

Mira Amiras at And This Part is True has some very interesting thoughts about the movie based on her own ballet experiences as a child and her ideas of perfection:

Black Swan is all about perfection. And that real perfection requires a modicum of imperfection to be just right. Too much technical precision feels wooden. It feels boring. And our eye strays anywhere else it can to escape. We need a touch of insanity in our art. We need to have fun with it. We need to be unpredictable and wild — without losing our form.

 Cross Posted from BlogHer

Image: Fox Searchlight


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