Bayard, Holmes, Movie, No Popcorn: Black Swan

By Piper Bayard & Jay Holmes

Black Swan is a psychodrama about a ballet dancer, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), who flips out in her quest for perfection. By popular request, Holmes and I recently went to see it so we could give you a review from the perspective of an author/bellydancer and a man with experience in intelligence and covert operations.

Holmes and I agree that Black Swan puts the psycho in psychodrama. Aside from the fact that we’ve both spent a great deal of effort eliminating psychos from our lives, and sitting in a room with them for two hours isn’t something we would ordinarily choose to do, we also agree that it was an excellent movie. Beware, however. Do not take your kids. As far as this small town girl and this rather worldly boy are concerned, Black Swan stretches its R rating to the limit.

We both also thought the queasy cam effects, while reflective of Nina’s growing instability, were a bit much. By the way, queasy cam is that documentary-type, shakey image that promotes a feel of instability and makes you seasick just watching it. Holmes says it well for both of us. “Charlie Chaplin and his pals went to great lengths to develop methods of avoiding that effect, and I wonder how horrified he would have been to see such violent camera work.”

Now on to our individual comments. . . .

Bayard:

I knew nothing about Black Swan when I walked in except for what I got out of the SNL skit the other night with Jim Carrey.

As an author, I was impressed with the character development and the plot movement. With no visible back story, we know soon enough that Nina is a head case. This is well represented throughout the movie by her relationship to her skin. Also, I appreciated the smooth ebb and flow of tension, with each wave building on the last. The exception to this for me was the gratuitous lesbian love scene. That theme could have been handled with much more class and subtlety.

Everyone in Black Swan is a nut job of some variety, and they are excellent nut jobs, at that. Just the kind you’d expect in any dance company, frankly. We have the frigid, obsessed Nina, her “sexual harassment lawsuit looking for a plaintiff” artistic director, Thomah (Vincent Cassel), and, the anti-Nina in the form of uninhibited party girl, Lily (Mila Kunis), who, in the real world, would be on the Lindsey Lohan fast-track to rehab. All beautifully written and played.

My favorite whack job, though, is stage mom Erica Sayers (Barbara Hershey). She’s driven and obsessed with her daughter, yet all the while she reminds little Nina that she ruined her mother’s life. Damn near drove me crazy just watching her. I could swear she walked right out of the local PTA meeting for parents of  “gifted and talented” children.

As a dancer, I thoroughly enjoyed the performances. The dancers all have excellent posture and beautiful hands, and they manage to avoid my two major pet peeves of ballet. Their spins are vertical with no Leaning Tower of Pisa Turns, and they do not subject the audience to any Great Divide Crotch Shots. That’s where the man lifts the lady to grace the audience with the vision of her tutu framing her hoo-hoo as she splays her legs. Indeed, I’m happy to say I never once got the same view of Natalie Portman’s crotch that Mila Kunis did during their lesbian scene.

One more thing. In spite of artistic director Skumbag being a skumbag, he is 100% correct in his instructions to Nina. There is an essence to Dance that transcends perfect steps. As I always told my students, Dance is the elimination of thought between the music and the motion. Discipline gives Dance its tools of expression.

Aside from being in a room with psychos for two hours, I thoroughly enjoyed Black Swan.

Holmes:

When I was five, my first crush was my teacher, Sister Miriam. I asked her to marry me. She explained that she was already married to Jesus. I pointed out that Jesus wasn’t here, and I was, but for some reason, she didn’t go for it.

A year later, I saw my first ballet, Swan Lake, performed by the New York City Ballet company, and I found true love. You have to understand that Swan Lake holds a special place in my heart, and I don’t like to see it messed with. It’s a ballet that, because it was the first one I saw live, has outshined every other ballet I’ve seen. So when I went to see Black Swan, it was like going to visit my pristine first love and finding a drunken convict on top of her.

I thought it was a very good movie, though, and I would have seen it even without the lesbian love scene. I found that scene both unnecessary and unnecessarily brief, not to mention unrealistically dry. They could have drawn out the action there without losing my interest. However, it was a fairly predictable and pedestrian trick, and it seemed like they worked pretty hard to fit it in. In fact, I think they just threw that in to get guys to go see the movie with their wives and girlfriends. It will probably work.

I’m being overly critical here, but in terms of psychosis and neuroses and such, it was a bit muddled. If Nina was that deep into her sickness, she wouldn’t have been able to hold it together to be the prima ballerina of the New York Ballet. They are on stage every moment of their lives and have to handle intense stress. If she was that crazy, she would have broken sooner.

The style of the movie was completely operatic, with many Hitchcockian devices which effectively enhance the story. I felt like I was watching an opera about ballet, as everything about the timing, the over-dramatization, and the acting seemed calculated to be visible to the people in the “back row.” There was no subtlety in the actors’ physical movements or in the story line. Anyone who likes opera, stage theatre, or zarzuela will like this movie.

Overall, I enjoyed Black Swan, but I could have used more Swan Lake and less queasy cam.

Holmes and I rate Black Swan at a .357, or, it’s worth the prime time price if you can stand the crowd. (Click here for our ammo rating system.) We certainly recommend this movie. The acting is excellent, the story line is engaging, and it uses old suspense movie devices to great effect in conveying the psycho nature of the drama. Not quite a life changer, but definitely interesting and unique enough to be entertaining.

All the best to all of you for a week without queasy cam.