As the father of a ballerina I wanted to see Black Swan again with her ballet teacher of many years.
The first time, seeing it by myself, I made mental notes of what I noticed: a bit of Repulsion, Adrian Lyne-style over the top sexuality, the cold white light of Kubrick, and the difficulty of writing dialogue that isn't risible between judge and judgee in a reality TV world. I walked out thinking about the gap between a professional at anything and everyone else. In ballet you can ask to see a ballerina's hand position and know immediately whether she is the real deal. I was entertained but not moved.
This time, as her teacher reacted, twisting and turning in her seat as she remembered dancing the role of Odette/Odile 60 years ago, we both, as in Pauline Kael's wonderful phrase, lost it at the movies.
It was a completely different experience. Black Swan became a movie about how art is created and the madness of genius. The score, as you can imagine, is one of the best in memory. Seeing it a second time convinced me that it is one of the movies of the year. This time the movie pulled me into the fable of the swans, into the lives of the dance company, into experiencing vicariously the effort required to stage an opening night of Swan Lake.
The director is not merely filming the performance of a ballet company, instead he uses Natalie Portman as the focus of our attention. A third of the movie seems to be her face in close-up. She is classically beautiful, drawn to all bone and taut skin for this role -- riveting. She is so open to expression that she holds our attention -- whether as a still lake ruffled by slight wind of emotion, letting us see her fragility, or as an ocean's surface as the hurricane of her desire and drive for perfection blows through.
The plot follows the company from casting to the opening night of a new version of Swan Lake, a version that is as much Odile as Odette. Portman, as Odette, resembles a young Audrey Hepburn, as Odile she must allow a darker version of herself to live. She is convincing as a fragile ingenue and a driven termagant.
The director makes it clear that ballet at this level requires a perfection that is almost inhuman, and, among all things, he shows how Portman's character lives to be perfect.
At either showing I was not a neutral observer. My daughter is a ballerina, and I am aware of the effort behind each of her performances. Each dancer you see on stage, even in the most humble companies, has experienced years of discipline, practice, and luck to have made it so far. It is a demanding art form, not for the weak in body or spirit.
Black Swan takes us into the world of ballet with all its split toenails, endless hours at the barre, the fierce competition among a hundred dancers to be the one... the prima ballerina.
The movie brings the consensual hallucination that beautiful young dancers are actually swans to other parts of the film in a way that can disturb. What indeed is real, and what is not, in a ballet performance? The sweat and effort, the hour upon hour of rehearsal, the rivalries and bullying to bring out the best in the principle dancers? Or is ballet's reality what we the audience see when the curtain goes up and the ballet begins?
Young girls get toe shoes in a first coming of age at ten, and immediately teeter on weak ankles, dreaming of being the Swan Queen. They dream and practice and dance and are introduced to the most beautiful music in the world as they follow in the literal footsteps of generations of other women. My daughter's wonderful teacher sitting next to me in the dark, critical of the the things any professional would notice, was in tears at moments in the movie I could only guess at.
Natalie Portman's Nina Sayers is wound so tightly by the ambition to be perfect that being the lead seems her only path to happiness. She discovers that she is to be the Swan Queen in a scene that would pull a stone's heartstrings. The screen fills with her face in close up, she calls her mother to tell her the incredible news, and she begins to sob with happiness. For a moment the distance from actress to audience vanishes and we live her, the audience in the movie theater, with a catch in its throat.
A profound moment found in all the best movies. Perhaps, the 'why' of why we go to movies. A why which is, to me, as the 'why' of why some things are beautiful and some are not.
At opening night, as the familiar overture to Swan Lake begins, we sit expectant, the curtain rises. The quest for perfection becomes perfection. The ballet, viewed from the wings with the performers nervously waiting to hear their cues, becomes the ideal distance to feel what it must be like to be in a company. The extraordinary experience of watching Natalie/Nina/Odette/Odile is a movie to talk about with friends over drinks, to see more than once, to write about in an attempt to make the reader see the Black Swan.
The end of the ballet begins: Tchaikovsky fills the theater, the huge screen beckons with its out sized magic, the swans and dancers are one, Nina Sayers is Odette and Odile, and, yes, I've lost it at the movies yet again.