Year Released: 2010
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey
(R, 103 min.)
"Today I felt pass over me/ A breath of wind from the wings of madness." Charles Baudelaire
This critically acclaimed film is such a churning stew of genres – supernatural slasher, rite of passage psychodrama, erotic thriller, ballet-Red Shoes wannabe – it’s enough to turn your stomach over, which is what happens Natalie Portman’s Nina on a regular bulimic basis as she struggles to her keep her rail-thin dancer’s body.
Director Darren Aronofsky, who earned great plaudits for exploring the darker places of that pseudo-sport in his 2008 The Wrestler, has raised his scope to the high arts now, choosing to deconstruct the ballet, as well as one of its hardest working aspirants, Nina Sayers, (Natalie Portman), a chorus fledging testing her wings as the lead in Swan Lake.
Artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is intent on doing an innovative Swan Lake, one that diverges from the original pastiche of Russian folks tales about a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer. His production will not dwell merely on Odette, the chaste white swan who wins the heart of her prince, but also on Odile, the black swan who courts the prince in disguise, winning his heart in an act of deceit. The starring ballerina must play both parts, the white and the black swan, and in the director’s revamped version, the black swan doesn’t just win the prince’s heart, she must smolder with seduction and a dark sexual passion, emotions he doubts the dedicated but innocent Nina can muster.
If she cannot unleash her repressed sexual instincts, the part will go to someone who can, most likely Lily (Mila Kunis), a San Francisco free spirit who has just flown in for the audition, complete with her own set of black wings tattooed permanently on her back.
When Thomas taunts her innocence, coaxes her to beg for the role and then boldly kisses her, even when he asks her to his penthouse apartment gleaming with silver and seduction, it is not lust that motivates, but artistry. Nina takes his assignment to “loosen up” with the same dedication she does to stretching her legs or dancing on her bloody toes. Yet just as these two exercises are overseen by the constant eye of her Mama Dearest, frustrated dancer Erica Sayer (Barbara Hershey), so too is her under the sheets auto-eroticism, or at least that’s what the mortified Nina thinks when an image of her harridan mother appears suddenly in the bedroom.
Yet what is really there and what isn’t? That’s the rub. Is the mysterious rash that appears on her back, along with gooseflesh, a result of self-mutilation at night – thus the need for her mother to clip her nails on a regular basis or for Nina to wear mittens to bed – or merely an illusion, like the recurring one where she sees a dark twin at the edge of her vision, lurking in the mirror, or sneering at her from the train platform. The fact that the rash is alternately on the right and then the left shoulder blade, as noted by some astute viewers, indicates the latter.
Once we really begin to question our unreliable narrator -- or should I say unreliable camera in this case -- and indeed we should, as indicated in a heavy-handed fashion from the film’s very first surreal sequence, we wonder what we should take for truth and what for paranoid delusions.
Even that gets muddled, too, and we begin to wish the writers, all four of them – maybe that’s the problem – and the “boldly creative” director would exert as much discipline over the script as the dancers do with their arabesques.
After we are bowled over by the spectacle -- the music, the costumes, the gothic overtones – and rendered aghast, numb, or aroused by the somewhat gratuitous voyeurism, we wonder what is at the core of the melodrama. Sure, Nina’s cloistered home life, her bedroom a pink Never Neverland of arrested development presided over by a more than creepy stage mother, the cloying and fetid air of the backstabbing dancers, the cold manipulations of an artistic director who plays his brood against each other like an experiment in social Darwinism, and the overly friendly temptations offered by her San Francisco rival are certainly enough to create a lifelong neurotic brew. But it is not the beaker full of bubbling toxins to turn a Jekyll into Hyde.
Even though a group of psychiatrists try their best to explain Nina’s hallucinations, citing stress, her use of Ecstasy, her repeated vomiting and weight loss, they are forced to admit that “the film took liberties with a host of anxiety disorders: anorexia, bulimia, cutting and obsessive compulsive disorder, most of which would not all appear together.” When in doubt, throw in anything you can, the same irrational exuberance Aronofsky uses in scarping up one and all genres.
I agree with those of us in the minority report, critics who have not fallen in a collective swoon with the rest:
“Nina is just a collection of a neurotic behaviors, not a character…” Dana Stevens
“High-art trash. Where Tutu Goes Psycho.” Kenneth Turan
“Her mental disintegration is primarily a plot device.” Jamie Graham
Perhaps Carol Cling goes a bit too far when she pronounces the “…screenplay crushingly pedestrian, glaringly obvious.”
Yes, this artsy spectacle will surely draw you in. But it flies on the waxed wings of Icarus. Don’t get too close to the sun.
Nina’s bedroom is a confection of pink. She is the embodiment of the twirling ballerina on her nightstand, the ornament one would give a girl still in the single digits. In fact, just about everything about Nina is prepubescent. And the over the top frosted pink cake her mother gets her to celebrate her new role aches to cement her in perpetual childhood with its gooey sweetness. Try as she might to reject and all it implies, Nina cannot go against the iron will of this creepiest of creepy stage mothers.
Even if it is her part to portray burgeoning sexuality and seduction on stage, at home Nina’s world will be pretty in pink for eternity.
Enjoy our recipe from a favorite English import now firmly settled on our California shores, the wonderful Becksposhnosh.blogspot.com, a wonderful site that proves English cooking is not an oxymoron.
Pink Fairy Cakes
Ingredients (makes 30 mini fairy cakes)
- 4 ounces butter
- 4 ounces Baker's or Caster Sugar
- 4 ounces sifted Self Raising Flour (or All-purpose flour + half tsp baking powder + pinch salt)
- 2 eggs
- 1 cup sifted Powdered or Icing sugar
- Juice of a lemon (*and zest, optional)
- Food colouring of your choice if desired. (For our recipe, use pink.)
- Silver Ball Cake Decorations (illegal to buy in California, so huge thanks to lovely Lynette for hooking me up with some)
-Put butter and eggs out of the fridge, to warm up to room temperature.
-Preheat oven to 375F
-Put out 30 mini paper cases on a baking tray.
-Either by hand or in a mixer bet the butter and sugar together until pale, fluffy and light. (*optional - add lemon zest at this stage if you desire)
-One at a time, beat the eggs in a separate bowl and then add to the sugar/butter mixture, beating hard, until all the ingredients are incorporated.
-Gently fold the flour into the butter mixture until everything is combined. Do not over mix or beat the flour.
-Using a teaspoon, drop small heaped teaspoon dollops of the batter into the paper cases.
-Transfer the tray to the preheated oven. Leave at least 17 minutes without opening the door. They should be golden brown on the surface once cooked. If still a bit pale after 17 minutes, turn the tray in the oven and bake for a further 3 minutes.
Transfer mini cakes to a cooling rack.
-Meanwhile add a few drops of colouring to the sifted powdered sugar in a medium bowl. Add fresh lemon juice, a small squirt at a time, beating hard, until all the sugar is blended into a thick fondant. Go gingerly with the liquid, you want it to be very thick. Stop adding lemon juice as soon as it reaches the fondant stage.
-Carefully drop a dollop of the fondant onto the centre of each little cake. Leave it to spread over the surface. You can guide the icing with a knife dipped in hot water if you want more control over where it dribbles.
-Top with a candy or cake decoration of your choice.
-Look for the fairies!
Recipe Source: Becksposhnosh.blogspot.com