Black Swan – Not Your Mother’s Tchaikovsky!

What is it that we look for in a movie? It’s a question I often ask myself and inquire about with everyone around me. Is it an emotional connection, a couple of hours of sheer action entertainment, a strong story which engages us, an ending that will help renew our hope in humanity, or a romance to knock our socks off? Well, it’s typically the emotional connections and redeeming human factors for me. But then, once in a blue moon, a film will come along which does not fit into my usual guideline for liking a film, and yet it leaves me thinking – and talking – about it for days, weeks to come. Black Swan turned out to be exactly that once-in-a-blue-moon film.


After I returned from a star-studded SAG screening of Black Swan, I posted a quick update on Twitter, saying the film’s ending – NO SPOILERS HERE!! – left me speechless. That is not an easy thing to do, as those who know me will guarantee. An active follower of mine replied asking if Black Swan was anything like Tchaikovsky’s oeuvre… The superficial, unfamiliar with the full scope of the ballet answer would be “NO” but actually, the Darren Aronofsky film is very much a modern interpretation of the tale of Swan Lake. To understand more of the classic story, I’m including a well recounted version from The Daily of the University of Washington:

“Swan Lake relates a fairy tale of romance between Prince Siegfried, who has just turned 21, and the beautiful Odette, a princess condemned by the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart to embody swan by day and woman by night; only true love can save Odette from permanent swan-dom. Siegfried is under pressure from his mother to find and marry a mate by the night of his birthday ball. Upon spying a flock of swans over a nearby forest, Siegfried follows only to be confronted by Odette; immediately he falls in love.

By dawn, Von Rothbart comes to reclaim Odette, and she becomes a swan once again. On the night of Siegfried’s birthday ball, the sorcerer arrives uninvited with a mystery guest: his daughter, Odile, who bears a striking resemblance to Odette. Fooled by the doppelganger, Siegfried asks for Odile’s hand in marriage. Moments later, Siegfried is blindsided by a vision of the real Odette and realizes his grave mistake.” I won’t give the ending of the ballet away. THAT is always my style.

For the modern take on this story, the official Fox Searchlight synopsis of Black Swan reads like this:

“BLACK SWAN is the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a ballerina in a New York City ballet company whose life, like all those in her profession, is completely consumed with dance. She lives with her retired ballerina mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) who zealously supports her daughter’s professional ambition. When artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for the opening production of their new season, Swan Lake, Nina is his first choice. But Nina has competition: a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), who impresses Leroy as well. Swan Lake requires a dancer who can play both the White Swan with innocence and grace, and the Black Swan, who represents guile and sensuality. Nina fits the White Swan role perfectly but Lily is the personification of the Black Swan. As the two young dancers expand their rivalry into a twisted friendship, Nina begins to get more in touch with her dark side with a recklessness that threatens to destroy her.”

Now that those formalities are over and done with, onto the important stuff, the personal opinions, as well as the insight from a screening attended by the entire cast – I kid you not – the director AND the editor of the film. Black Swan will WOW you. Whether you have grown up dancing, or watching ballet, or have never even heard of the stuff, the film will mesmerize you with a blend of mind-blowing performances by all involved, masterful cinematography by Matthew Libatique and a strong screenplay by Mark Heyman, John McLaughlin and Andres Heinz from a fantastical story by Andres Heinz. The stuff movie dreams are made of. While I did not go in expecting the full experience this film would provide – my dreams were more than slightly influenced by the images of Nina’s own visions last night – I did walk away completely overwhelmed by the film. Stepping into the same subway stop where I’d just seen Nina – yup, that’s my name too, a bit creepy right there… – come out onto Lincoln Center Plaza in the film was positively surreal. But the portrayal of dancers and the trappings of the incredibly competitive and cruel world of ballet was dead-on real. Down to the bulimia and self image issues.

Aronofsky, seen here right with Cassel, has an eye for details. He leaves nothing to chance and even used that old Western film wardrobe department standard of white hat for the good guys, black hat for the bad guys. Except that here it is white tutus and black head-to-toe NYC chic wear, the line distinguishing the good guys – and girls – from their evil counterparts are refreshingly blurred and he throws in a few grey rehearsal tutus in there, just to add a pinch of guesswork to the already cushy job of watching this film for the audience at hand. Oh, and while on the subject of wardrobe, the costumes by Rodarte will do for leotards what Flashdance did for torn sweatshirts, I guarantee it. Except it will be so much wearable and classy. And don’t even get me started about black wings, tattooed or simply sprouted. DIVINE imagery, but I’m digressing terribly!

For the Q & A after the film, the cast – Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel, Winona Ryder  - filmmaker Aronofsky and the film’s editor Andrew Weisblum arrived at their glamorous best, fresh from the NYC premiere of the film at the Zeigfeld Theater. It was fantastic to sit just inches away from the striking Hershey, in a silver zari work inspired LBD, the pretty Portman in a floor-length chiffon Dior gown and Ryder looking super-elegant in a feminine take on the tuxedo, complete with tiny diamond necktie necklace. Not to mention the hot-for-the-thinking-woman Cassel, who is sultry up close. Portman talked about the way the script had originally ended, which she felt subtracted from the empowering words her character utters as the film closes and was eventually changed. She also spoke of her year of dance training, since her ballet lesson had ended at age twelve. At six months before shooting began, she was practicing 5 hours a day, while also swimming and cross-training. The reserved Aronofsky disclosed that Black Swan is indeed a low-budget film in these days of hyper budgets, although one would never feel it from the quality of the finished product. The shooting took 40 days, and SUNY Purchase doubled for the State Theater at Lincoln Center. While the NYC Ballet is never mentioned by name, the Big Apple institution was indeed the inspiration for the film, along with the Dostoyevsky novella The Double, which Aronofsky called “the starting point for this story”. Cassel revealed that he modeled the role of Thomas on a combination of “Balanchine, of course, Baryshnikov and Black Swan choreographer Benjamin Millepied. But the main inspiration was Michael Bennett” who choreographed A Chorus Line on Broadway. Though Cassel added that Bennett liked men… while Thomas is indeed an incurable ladies’ man.

While I could go on and on with insider’s info and tidbits of facts on this film, like how the filmmakers draw in their audience to experience everything Nina feels through sound – the cracking of bones when she wakes up in the morning, her breathing while she dances – as well as what is shown on the screen, or how Aronofsky asked Barbara Hershey to write a long, heartfelt letter to Portman to establish the mother/daughter connection between them at the start of filming, when Nina’s scenes did not include her mother’s presence just yet.

But all that I would end up doing is distracting you from getting on, or wherever you book your advance movie tickets, and getting yours PRONTO for Black Swan, which opens on Friday, Dec. 3rd, at selected theaters around the US. The film has already been nominated for the IFC Spirit Awards, will definitely be a substantial part of the SAG awards, and has been creating Oscar buzz all over town. Three words of advice from yours truly: don’t miss it!

All images courtesy of Fox Searchlight

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