‘Black Swan’s’ cinematic madness — and a Scandinavian Christmas

Natalie Portman in "Black Swan."
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Natalie Portman in “Black Swan.”

Something about “Black Swan,” the latest film from director Darren Aronofsky, seems to have struck a nerve in the Twin Cities. It’s hard to say what it might be — perhaps Twin Citians are fans of ballet, or, more specifically, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Marius Petipa, and Lev Ivanov, whose “Swan Lake” is the subject of this film. Or perhaps audiences heard there is a love scene between actresses Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. It’s just so hard to know what gets people into the cinema nowadays, but there they were, opening night, lined up around the block at the Uptown Theater, despite warnings of a murderous blizzard. Indeed, the snow had started to fall at the end of the 10 p.m. showing, and patrons huddled in the cold outside, trying to make head or tail of what they had just seen.
It’s a perplexing film, in that the whole of it is told from the point of view of Portman, and she plays a ballerina who has gone mad. It’s not any real madness she exhibits, although she shows signs of the sort of mental illnesses that actually do beset young women, including a nervous (and possibly bulimic) stomach and a tendency to scratch herself obsessively. For the most part, though, she has a cinematic madness, in which she sees doppelgangers in subways, odd reflections in mirrors, and suddenly sprouts feathers out of rashes. This is all exacerbated by her being cast in the lead role of “Swan Lake,” especially as she finds herself simultaneously drawn to and paranoid about a new dancer, played by Kunis. Both actresses are quite good in this, with Portman perfectly limning the sort of performer who locks herself in bathroom stalls to have teary cell phone discussions with her overbearing mother, regardless of whether it’s about good news or bad. Kunis, in the meanwhile, has a tattoo, takes off her panties at parties, and slips pills into Portman’s drinks, which I know is supposed to make her the bad girl in this film. In the tradition of a lot of cinematic bad girls, though, she seems more fun than the main character.
The film goes perfectly batty — the final half hour is tonally somewhere between “Mommy Dearest” and a David Cronenberg film. And Aronofsky is stingy with offering clues about what has actually happened and what’s just in Portman’s fevered psyche, although one expects that when she actually starts turning into a bird, that’s not supposed to be representative of reality.
Oddly, though, this film takes a near-documentary approach with the actual details of making an ballet, including taking a great deal of time to show just how much work ballerinas put into their slippers. The heel-beaters tear their shoes apart, resew them, scuff their bottoms, and a myriad of other idiosyncratic techniques to get them just right, and we see Portman do this over and over. The film is full of details like this, and there’s something peculiar about it’s accumulation of credible cinematic details when the story is so loaded with incredible details. This includes a ballet director, played by Vincent Cassel, who seems to believe part of his job involves making sure his company is hit with a devastating sexual harassment lawsuit. I know — he’s supposed to be based on Balanchine. More properly, he’s based on rumors about Balanchine, back in the middle part of the 20th century, when sexual harassment laws weren’t what they are today. A head of a multimillion-dollar arts organization telling his prima ballerina that she needs to go home and touch herself? Both would be swarmed by HR professionals, even if it’s good advice.
But it helps to look beyond the film’s tone — which alternates between cinema verite and horror-movie expressionism — and try a simple experiment: Can you imagine the whole thing acted out by a cast of female impersonators? Yes; yes you can. If you remember that as you watch the film, especially if you imagine the arch tone it would create, the film is a blast. And you won’t be left hashing out its plot in a blizzard afterward.
It was a strange weekend for the arts — Saturday saw a steady stream of cancellations, with almost all live shows shutting down for the day, especially following a terse reprimand from Minnesota Public Radio’s Marianne Combs, who tweeted “[I]f you haven’t canceled, you’re not really thinking of the safety of your audience, are you?” But it’s understandable why theaters were hesitant to cancel — many have extremely limited runs in which to turn a profit, and canceling even one show can be enough to make their profits deflate like a Metrodome roof. In the end, though, when your audience isn’t going to get there without Balto, the Siberian Husky who ran through a whiteout blizzard to get medicine to Nome … well, you might as well close up shop for the night.
Almost everybody was up and running again Sunday, hopefully with an expanded audience to make up for their Saturday losses. There was a fairly good-sized crowd at Orchestra Hall for Minnesota Orchestra’s Sunday night performance of “A Scandinavian Christmas.” It was a lively show, especially as Christmas music gives the percussionist an opportunity to really go to town on the chimes, banging away with mallets like a church tower bell-ringer.
Conductor Sarah Hicks had an intriguing guest by the name of Jeffrey Foucault, a bearded, cowboy-hatted, and blue-jeaned fellow from Wisconsin who took the stage with a beat-up guitar. He didn’t have Scandinavian music to offer, nor was he the sort that you’d usually associate with classical music. Instead, he offered up a few original folk songs, which he sang with a rich, deep voice. Included was a song called “Ghost Repeater,” which is a Christmas song, but a dark one, starting with the lyrics “All of the drunks dressed up like Santa Claus ring Salvation Army bells,” and then goes on to obliquely reference Guantanamo Bay. “I wrote this song while thinking about a mythical country that traded its freedom from an illusion of security and turned into a fascist dictatorship,” Foucault said, introducing the song, or words very much like those. The audience laughed, either appreciatively or nervously. But Foucault’s song is a good one, and an interesting one, and if it seemed misplaced in the evening’s performance, well, the evening also offered a Swedish version of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” so it was nice to have something a little grimmer and less expected for Christmas.
Here’s a video of Foucalt performing the song:


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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Hénock Gugsa on 12/13/2010 - 04:42 pm.

    I don’t think I’d care to see this version of the black swan. I’m more than content with the one I saw back as child. It had Tyrone Power, Anthony Quinn, and oh a magnificent baddie, George Sanders.

  2. Submitted by Max Sparber on 12/14/2010 - 12:30 am.

    Tyrone Power did make a fabulous pirate.

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