Cristeta asked me to come up with a short for this week’s film, and since it was about ballet (right?) I came up with a Kids in the Hall sketch – “Ballet” – from their very first show.
In the skit, a ballet instructor reluctantly informs the precise young dancer Marla that her spot in “the Academy” the next year is going to be taken instead by the boorish, clumsy, rude and disgusting Nicole (played by the graceless Kevin McDonald). Why? Because Marla is too focused on perfection, while Nicole has “the spirit of the dance”. And after about three or four minutes of this, there’s one more thing. “Just kidding,” at which point the stoic Marla asks for permission to cry.
It’s perfect, and even more perfect when you consider the themes of the feature film.
Perfection. Obsession. Madness. That’s about all you really need to know about the feature presentation this week, the very recent Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky, and worthy of a Best Actress Oscar for Natalie Portman. Not as arresting as Pi, not as gritty as Requiem For A Dream, not as cerebral as The Fountain, and not as…sweaty?…as The Wrestler (I have to admit, I didn’t see that one), Black Swan still seems to fit into the Aronofsky oeuvre nonetheless.
Natalie Portman is having a rough time. Sure, she just won the starring role – a dual role playing both Odette, the White Swan, and Odile, the Black Swan – in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, so she ought to be really stoked. But just like any woman with a high dramastat, there are just all these things that are screwing up her presumably perfect life.
She’s got an overbearing mother, played flawlessly by Barbara Hershey, with whom Portman still lives in her childhood room, with her childhood stuffed animals, while her mother frets over having given up her own ballet career to have her. Controlling, smothering, capable of going ballistic over the slightest thing, and apparently completely unescapable.
She’s got a cold and unsympathetic ballet director, who accuses her (like Marla of our short) of being too perfectionist and not having enough soul. He even goes so far as to point out that she’s such a stiff, the male ballet dancers wouldn’t even want to have sex with her. Then he tries to get her to have sex with him, because that’s what male ballet directors do with their prima ballerinas. It’s written somewhere.
Then there’s Winona Ryder, the aging former prima ballerina whom Portman has just replaced. Portman has spent a good deal of time being all klepto in Ryder’s dressing room, stealing her lipstick, her nail file, her perfume…and now she’s stealing her man! Portman has nothing but a sick admiration for Ryder, so she’s kind of torn up when Ryder not quite fatally throws herself out in front of a car because Portman has stolen her whole life from her.
There’s also Mila Kunis, a new dancer in the company who has been selected as Portman’s understudy, and spends her time slutting it around with the male dancers and trying to get Portman out of the house, taking her out of the clutches of her mother only to drug her drink so she blacks out and comes to making out with a stranger in a club bathroom. Some friend. And Portman is convinced she has her eye on the lead role, that conniving understudy!
And on top of all of this drama, she’s got this bizarre scratch/rash thing on her shoulder that her mother is really, totally worried about.
Of course, at some point we have to begin to wonder how much of this is real, because as Portman tries to embrace her role as the Black Swan she increasingly starts to enter into a world where reality and mental instability are blurred.
When the ballet director tells her to go home and touch herself, she’s incensed, but when the morning sun starts to break into her room, she takes his advice…and she’s getting really into it, too, until she sees her mother sleeping in a chair in the corner. (Or was she?)
She has these problems with mirrors. Basically, the problem is that the Natalie Portman in the mirror just doesn’t want to mimic the Natalie Portman of real life. But that can’t be right, right?
After getting drugged by Mila Kunis, she brings her home and sleeps with her, defiantly, in front of her mother. Except the next day Mila Kunis doesn’t seem to think that’s what happened.
She starts to find feathers growing out of that weird scratch on her shoulder, which can’t be right, right? She’s not actually turning into a swan…
So when she goes to Winona’s hospital room to return the stuff she’d swiped, does Winona really stab herself in the neck several times with the nail file? Or, seeing as Portman is holding it when she stumbles into the hospital elevator, did Portman do it? Did it happen at all?
But never mind that, because it’s opening day! And lo and behold, overbearing mother calls Portman in sick without her permission. What? But Portman, who simply woke up late, hurries down to the theater to reclaim her starting spot from the understudy interloper.
After playing the first act as the White Swan (including getting dropped disastrously by a male dancer who is more worried about banging Mila Kunis than getting opening night right) she returns to her dressing room to put on the Black Swan outfit. Mila Kunis is there, in the Black Swan costume and saying that she’s going to play the role. Yeah, right. So Portman throws her against the mirror and stabs her in the gut with a mirror shard, killing her and stuffing her in the bathroom. And that’s all reasonable, except that Mila Kunis’ face kept morphing into Portman’s. Weird.
She dances the Black Swan like a woman possessed – perfect AND passionate. She grows feathers and wings and everything. And to the sounds of the most raucous applause possible at a ballet, she returns to the dressing room for the final change to the White Swan costume. There’s a knock on the door…and it’s Mila Kunis! Just there to tell her how great she danced! And there’s a broken shard of mirror glass in Portman’s belly!
Bleeding or not, she goes out to perform the final act flawlessly, performs her final, suicidal leap into Swan Lake (onto a mattress, of course) and explodes with blood from the gut. “I was perfect!” she proclaims to the astonished gathered company, as the audience chants her name and the screen fades to white.
It’s kind of a cool movie, but who the heck knows what was real and what wasn’t? We don’t know. All we know is that Portman believes that she achieved perfection, and that’s OK with her, even at the cost of her life.