Thursday, 21 November 2013

Black Swan

Black Swan (film) - Channel 4, 9pm, 16th November

When I tell non-dance people that I write about dance and especially ballet, their first question is usually to ask what I think of 'Black Swan'. The short answer is that I believe Darren Aronofsky's award-winning film is great. It's not a wholly accurate representation of the ballet world but I don't think it's meant to be. It's an interesting and captivatingly-portrayed story about a woman who becomes increasingly disturbed and deluded under the stress of her job and also the pressure she puts on herself. The ballet setting is merely a lens through which this idea is explored. (I often make a comparison to the film 'Snakes on a Plane', which is neither representative of snakes nor planes.)
As the film had its network premiere on Saturday, I decided to watch it again and offer here some more detailed thoughts on its strengths and weaknesses.
Reasons to like the film:
1. Natalie Portman is superb in the leading role as ballerina Nina Sayers. Whilst she doesn't perform much of the choreography herself, the dancing she does do demonstrates a great respect for and understanding of ballet as an art form. Portman's acting is also excellent, giving her character a real depth and inviting the viewer to sympathise with her state of mind. It's no wonder Portman won an Oscar for her performance in the film, as well as a Golden Globe, BAFTA and numerous other awards.

2. The narrative is intelligently conveyed, so that the audience doesn't know what is Nina's paranoid fantasy and what is reality. That leaves a sense of confusion and disorientation that matches exactly how the lead character feels, and encourages questioning of what has actually happened and when Nina's behaviour became madness.
3. There are several elements of the film that accurately represent the ballet world (and indeed this fact was tweeted on Saturday night by Royal Ballet dancer Olivia Cowley, though she refused to disclose exactly which). For example, the preparation of pointe shoes, which requires meticulous attention and is unique to each dancer, is shown effectively. The pain of physiotherapy/massage to release tension in the body is also correctly conveyed, as is the pain of finding out whether or not a role has been given by reading a cast list on a noticeboard.

Reasons to dislike the film:

1. There was a huge amount of controversy surrounding the use of Portman's body double, Sarah Lane. Lane claims that only 5% of the full body shots shown in the final 'Black Swan' were Portman herself, and yet her involvement was played down by the film's stars. It has even been suggested that digital enhancement was used post-production in certain scenes to put Portman's head onto Lane's body. As I have said above, I think Portman did a great job in her role and have no problem with her use of a body double for the more difficult ballet movements. But Lane's contribution should have been properly acknowledged.

2. The way the director behaves towards his newly-cast Swan Queen is sexual harassment and nothing less. Seeing a dancer asked to go home and masturbate, being groped and being expected to perform sexual favours in return for roles is a horrible and inaccurate reflection of the dance world.
3. The lead character has a real lack of independence; she seems emotionally stunted, with her pink bedroom filled with fluffy toys and her overbearing mother tucking her into bed every night and sewing the ribbons onto her pointe shoes. Whilst this is effective in story-telling terms, it is highly unlikely that a professional ballerina would become like this, as they would probably have to leave home at the age of 11 (or at the latest, 16) to attend full-time ballet school.
On balance, I think 'Black Swan' makes for great viewing. The ballet aspects of the film offer  a framework within which an interesting character and her mental state can be investigated. The fact there is also Tchaikovsky's gorgeous music and some fabulous dancing is the metaphorical icing on the cake.

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