Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Town

I’m often still surprised by my own gullibility. My faith in performance (and film and television—in representation, really) means that I’m eager to see a broad swath of cultural productions, and that I read, regularly, other critics, amalgamating their comments and making choices about what to see on that basis. The Town, Ben Affleck’s new film, got very good reviews when it opened last month, and although I missed it in the theatres, I watched it last night at home on pay-per-view.

What was I thinking? And how could I forget that most reviewers (sometimes women, included) don’t watch for the things that preoccupy me—representations of gender, sexuality, race, identity, and all the ways that narratives imagine or reconceive of social relationships. So I spent an evening with The Town, waiting for something interesting to happen to one of its two female characters—both adrift in a sea of men—before I realized that of course nothing would happen.

In this familiar male redemption tale, one woman is the whore, damned to remain a loser drug addict languishing forever in Charlestown, where the story is set, and the other is the Madonna, a Yuppie who’s invaded the neighborhood with her social ideals, her sustainable gardening, and her naïve faith in her own ability to make headway among the heathens. Each of them appears in the story for only one reason: to provide foils for the hero, Doug MacRay (Affleck).

Doug is a failed hockey star, drafted by the national league but unable to last because of his hot temper. He returns to his incestuous Charlestown neighborhood, where he takes up with the band of armed robbers who have been his life-long friends and street mates. Jem (Jeremy Renner) is his best friend, an unreconstructed hellion who despite spending nine years in prison, returns to the life of crime that’s the only one he knows. Jem is also a stock character; he’s the guy who can’t see another future than the doomed trajectory on which he’s been set since his birth.

Doug, on the other hand, left the ‘nabe long enough to see something different on the other side of the highly symbolic bridge that connects Charlestown to Boston. He’s sobered up by the time The Town begins, and although he’s still willing to have quick sex with Jem’s sister, Krista (Blake Lively), whose child might or might not be his, her addition to Oxycodone, cocaine, and alcohol is now despicable to him, the repulsive habits of a life he longs to escape.

In the film’s opening scene, Doug, Jem, and the pair of subsidiary slobs who comprise their merry band rob a bank. The sequence is full of gratuitous violence, with an inexplicable cameo by Victor Garber as the bank manager whom Jem brutally, needlessly beats. The assistant manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), is enlisted to open the bank’s vault, then kidnapped to provide the robbers some measure of safety (I guess, it’s not clear and mostly serves only as a story device) as they escape. They leave Claire, blindfolded, at the beach, warning her not to open her eyes until she feels the water lapping at her toes, and threaten her with rape and murder if she identifies them to the cops.

The FBI is on to these guys, and scoop Claire up for questioning. Jon Hamm plays the crusading G-man, Special Agent Frawley, who’s determined to track down Doug and his band. He questions Claire, but she can’t identify anything but the tattoo on Jem’s neck, which she saw as he beat her boss. The FBI warns her to stick around, and then Doug comes by, ostensibly to “take care of” her, since Jem worries that she’ll turn them in. But, surprise of all surprises, Doug falls in love with Claire instead, and keeps his real identity secret.

And so continues the hero’s redemption tale, where the essentially good guy with the tragic back story tries to save himself through the love of a good woman. Doug, it seems, was raised by a criminal long incarcerated (Doug tells Claire that his father—played by Chris Cooper—has moved to the suburbs). He thinks his mother ran out on the two of them, a psychic and emotional wound the screenplay uses to explain Doug’s wild side. When it turns out (spoiler alert, but believe me, this plot point comes as no surprise when it’s revealed in the film) that his mother was intentionally overdosed by the local drug lord, Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite, acting with slimy, placid cruelty), for whom Doug’s band contracts heists, Doug gets his revenge and engineers his escape from the Charlestown life that can only, finally, kill him.

All the conventions of the genre flick by at the appropriate moments. Doug wants out; Jem forces him to do one more heist, robbing an armored car driven by a man the band knows is trigger-happy. The botched robbery lands the four men at the FBI for questioning, prompting Doug to speed up the timetable for his departure and his desire to take Claire along. But Fergie has other plans, insisting that Doug and his men rob Fenway Park or he’ll kill Claire.

Forced to cooperate, Doug and Jem carry out the elaborate plan, which goes awry as they try to escape with the cash. Tipped off by Krista, who’s been scorned by Doug, that the men are planning to rob the park, Frawley and his compatriot, Dino (Titus Welliver of The Good Wife fame), set up an ambush that takes the lives of all but Doug. Dressed as a Boston cop, he watches his friends die one by one then saunters off, avenging his mother’s death by killing Fergie and his henchman, then taking Amtrak to Miami to start his new life.

Claire, the lovely idealistic woman who sees Doug’s goodness clearly, forgives him the lie that brought him into her life. Although she’s under surveillance by the FBI, before Doug leaves, through a kind of lover’s code, Claire indicates that she’ll follow him south when the coast clears. Frawley is frustrated by Doug’s getaway; the film’s funniest line has Frawley reminding Claire that his organization is national. But somehow, Doug escapes and Claire, too, is allowed to resume her life, with the hope of reuniting with her on-the-lam lover ever in the air. The film ends on a shot of Affleck as Doug presumably on the coast of Miami, watching the sun set and waiting for Claire to join him in the new, beach-swept life he’s finally achieved.

Ho hum, is all I can say. How many times does this story have to be told? Reviewers applauded Affleck’s authoritative filmmaking and storytelling; okay, fine, he knows how to shoot a getaway scene, and he builds suspense nicely throughout. But he’s delivered this story before in his debut film, Good Will Hunting, in which he was the character who stayed and Matt Damon the one who drove off to a new life elsewhere. Reviewers admire Affleck for getting under the skin of characters they say he knows so well, the Charlestown Irish who are fiercely loyal to their families and friends, for whom their slice of life off of Boston proper is their eternal territory, for whom marrying your buddies’ sisters and starting the cycle up anew for the next generation is considered enough. Sure, Affleck and Damon themselves made good, and Affleck seems to want to honor the neighborhood he knows so well by paying it continual homage in his films (see also 2007’s Gone Baby Gone).

But really, guys. At the end of 2010, can’t we consider the women in this perennial story as something more than agents of the men’s growth? Does Krista really have to be damned, both by snitching on Doug and Jem to exact her own revenge on Doug’s determination to leave her behind, and by her addiction to narcotics and alcohol? And do the feds really have to take her kid away to make the point? Bad girlfriend, bad mother, Krista doesn’t stand a chance.

But Claire, the pure and stalwart, who’s at first fooled by Doug’s impersonation of an upright citizen, but ultimately forgives him when she learns he’s not, because he so wants to be good—can’t that stereotypical character grow into a woman with a bit of agency? When will this stock character ever stand on her own, outside the choices that the hero makes for her? Hall plays Claire with a bit of gumption—she’s the Yuppie interloper in Charlestown, but she’s fearless, even thinks she can cross “the projects” by herself to get to work. But when she tells Doug that she gets harassed on her way through the area, he and Jem take baseball bats or golf clubs to the projects and beat up a couple of guys in revenge. Claire can’t handle anything herself, because the film is only about Doug’s quest to be good and get out.

What a waste. Affleck seems a smart guy. He’s a good actor (although the Charlestown accents he and Renner, as Jem, milk for all they’re worth sound too thick and fake) and an accomplished director. But why put that talent toward such a tired story? How many more times do we have to see the hero escape his doom on the backs of women, one good, one bad, both ultimately disposal?

It’s getting to be a real snore.

The Feminist Spectator

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Angels in America

I’d heard mixed things about this production, since people had such strong attachments to the original Broadway version directed by George C. Wolfe, starring Stephen Spinella as Prior and Joe Mantello as Louis, Marcia Gay Harden as Harper and Ron Liebman as Roy Cohn, with Ellen McLaughlin and Kathleen Chalfant and Jeffrey Wright in all the other key roles. In 1993, it felt life-altering to see a gay play (and an overtly Jewish play) in a Broadway theatre, cast as spectacle with no apology for how it represented gay men as the center of the universe in conversation with all the big themes of American democracy.

I remember watching Part One: Millennium Approaches, from the balcony of the Walter Kerr Theatre, thrilled as the acts flew by and stunned when the Angel came crashing through Prior’s ceiling at Part One’s end, with his campy “Very Stephen Spielberg” response ending the evening. I felt like I’d witnessed history being made, and participated in the very same cracking open of time that Kushner goes on to address more overtly in the second part of his epic play.

Michael Greif’s production for Signature Theatre represents the first major revival of Kushner’s play since its Broadway debut. So much has changed in America since 1993, when it opened, and since 1985-86, when the play is set. Even though the left press is accusing Obama of returning to 80s-style Reaganomics with his recent compromise on taxes, we’re a long way from Reagan’s America in 2010. Although the political scene he draws, and Kushner’s incisive critique of democracy, still resonate, the sense of outsiderness that each of the play’s characters evokes has changed dramatically, if not completely.

And yet this production doesn’t quite present Angels as a history lesson, which I think (I’m not sure) is to its credit. That is, the production doesn’t seem particularly set in the 1980s—the costumes seem contemporary, with the exception of the occasional cut of a suit jacket or a particular pair of shoes. This production is full of detail, with each setting crammed with stuff, where the Broadway version was more abstracted and seemed to take place in nearly empty space. But at the Signature, the furniture and the sets are also not necessarily specific to the 1980s, a choice perhaps made to ensure the play’s relevance as we move into the second decade of the new millennium.

Perhaps most jarringly, the actors’ bodies are clearly contemporary. I recall Spinella playing Prior in the ‘90s, and how the audience gasped in unison when he took off his clothes for the scene in which he’s examined by a nurse in the hospital. Spinella was rail thin and his body was covered with prosthetic Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions. His portrayal of a man afflicted with advanced stage HIV/AIDS was almost too convincing, and spectators murmured openly with concern not just for Prior’s health, but for the well-being of the actor who played him.

By contrast, Eric Bryant, whom I saw play Prior at the December 24, 2010, performance (he understudied for Christian Borle), looked like the picture of health. His body is muscled and lithe, covered with a reasonable layer of healthy pink flesh that made the fake KS lesions seem too much like the pasted-on representations that they are. Although dark circles were drawn under Bryant’s eyes to make him look ill, believing that he had HIV/AIDS was a stretch, despite convincing performances of cramping and pain that he played scrawled on the stage floor. (Incidentally, I heard the same comments about Borle’s body from friends and colleagues who saw his performance.)

Angels was written well before the protease inhibitor cocktails that have extended the lives of people with HIV/AIDS and even, some say, made it a chronic rather than a fatal disease. Perhaps this 2010 representation of Prior is true to what people with HIV look like now. Perhaps asking the actor to lose 25 pounds to play the role would throw the production into a period verisimilitude that Greif seems to have wanted to avoid. But the choice means something about how HIV/AIDS is represented in 2010, and says something about what the pandemic means now, too. If it’s more difficult to see Prior as doomed in this production, how does Kushner’s play change?

Since Angels was the first Broadway play to take seriously the cost of the AIDS pandemic for gay male communities (Larry Kramer’s earlier, important play The Normal Heart played Off Broadway), the changed status of the disease (at least for those who can afford the life-prolonging treatment) shifts the play’s urgency. (For a terrific history of the representation of the pandemic in American theatre, I highly recommend my friend David Román’s book, Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, and AIDS.)

Likewise, in a political moment in which the president just signed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and when at least in some states in the U.S. and in countries around the world, gay men and lesbians can, if they wish, get married, the status of queer people as an underclass has changed from what it was when the Broadway production of Angels premiered. The play was already a history, even as it made history—that is, it was set six years before the time of its production. Now, we’re nearly 30 years past the dark days of the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and St. Vincent’s Hospital, where so many of those who suffered from the disease in Manhattan went for treatment, has long since been closed.

So what does Angels mean now? Is it just a history lesson for those who weren’t there for one of the most traumatic moments in American politics and culture? Is it a trip into nostalgia of a peculiar kind for those of us who were there? And what of the play’s other themes, its attention to Jewishness, to democracy, to community, and to renewal? When I teach the play now—in courses on American drama, queer theatre, and most recently, Jewish identity and performance—I’m invariably moved by Kushner’s fervor for something better, by his acute intelligence, his inventive theatricality, his ability to interweave so many lives and experiences and come out at the end with a new idea of faith and family that his characters actually try to practice. And I’m moved by the memory of how galvanized I was by what was in the early ‘90s his bold take on gay themes and characters.

Seeing the Signature production, I felt as moved as I am when I reread the play. Greif’s provides a more intimate experience than Wolfe’s. The Signature’s Peter Norton Theatre is small, wide but not that deep, and Greif’s staging uses the extended proscenium to the play’s advantage by setting simultaneous scenes side-by-side and using the apron for transitional moments and “traveling.” Where the Broadway version saw the characters crossing the stage in wide arcs to tease out their interrelationships across the space, the Signature version uses interlocking sets moved about by unconcealed stage-hands that wheel into and away from one another.

I liked this choice more, as it came to represent, as Part One proceeded, the continuum of time and space that preoccupies Kushner, as the sets move together, break apart, swirl around, and return to their place, changed. Even the accumulation of detail in each set—the unpacked boxes in Harper and Joe Pitt’s Brooklyn apartment; the bookcases in Prior and Louis’s place, sharing a wall with Harper and Joe’s; the café where Louis and Belize talk (or where Louis talks and Belize listens), decorated with realistic cups and counters—all of this seemed to evoke the messy chaos of complicated lives as they spiral together and bounce apart. The production feels rooted in quotidian detail, which doesn’t detract from its philosophizing so much as ground it more concretely in the progress of our common lives.

The casting in this production also brings a whole new aspect to the work. Zachary Quinto, as Louis, provides a much more centered eye to this version of the play’s storm. Louis’s neuroses are tamped down in Quinto’s quieter, less flamboyant performance, and he seems to think through his words, instead of just letting them tumble out as Mantello did in the original. As a result, Louis seems a more careful, reflective character, which makes his inability to stick by Prior as he falls ill that much more painful.

Louis’s coffee shop scene with Belize (Billy Porter) retains much of its grim hilarity, as Louis’s political insights pour out alongside the racial insensitivities on which Porter comments by raising his eyebrows with alarm and incredulity. But the scene also demonstrates how hard Louis works intellectually, if not emotionally, to come up with an analysis that lets him move through a very complex life. In Quinto’s hands, Louis is much more empathetic, which gives the play a new emotional resonance.

Porter, in the difficult role of the only person of color in Kushner’s play, presents Belize, too, as grounded in his post-drag queen seriousness and his lingering, cutting campiness. Porter plays Belize less flamboyantly than Jeffrey Wright’s original performance, which brings the character more depth and helps make his outsiderness more poignant.

Bill Heck plays Joe Pitt with moving intensity. He’s slightly less of a pretty face than, for instance, Patrick Wilson, who played the role in Mike Nichol’s 2003 HBO film version of Angels, which somehow makes his own struggles with his sexuality, his fealty to his wife and his religion, and his conservative politics that much more persuasive and compelling. His physical revulsion for Harper (Zoe Kazan) reads palpably here, along with the queer desire he can’t tame or name.

Kazan, as Harper, brings new shadings to the role of the woman driven mad by her husband’s lies. Harper’s scenes draw out much of Kushner’s more theatrical, fantastical imaginings, and Kazan plays them with a thoughtful probity missing from Marcia Gay Harden’s Broadway original or from Mary Louise Parker’s HBO performance in the role. Kazan is a slight young woman with an appealing, round, open face. Heck, as Joe, towers over her, a physical demonstration of their power differential. But Kazan’s thoughtfulness gives her more power than most Harpers I’ve seen—she doesn’t fold as easily in the face of Joe’s cruelty and dissembling.

Greif’s staging allows Harper’s and Prior’s scenes to actually intermingle on the small Signature stage. Where Wolfe had the two characters meet in the middle of what felt like a vast, abstracted Broadway proscenium to play out their fantastical encounters, Greif moves Harper into Prior’s apartment and hospital room as their parallel scenes proceed. Although the choice might be less theatrical and spectacular than Wolfe’s broader staging, these scenes become more intimate and human in Greif’s conception of the play.

Harper and Prior don’t seem quite as unhinged, their visions less mad than melancholy and poignant. They see one another as soul mates in their mutual loss and uncertainty, and perform their brief encounters with mutual admiration and affection. Greif’s direction might not emphasize the pageantry or “fantasia” of Kushner’s play the way Wolfe’s did, but I found myself quite moved by the more quotidian-scale interactions among the characters. It’s almost as if Wolfe directed the original Angels as a big, presentational Broadway musical, while Greif directs it as a canonical straight play.

Bryant, standing in for Borle at the performance I saw, was wonderful as Prior. Although he’s a specimen of perfect health, and not quite convincing as a young man dying of HIV/AIDS, Bryant dignified Prior’s vulnerable neediness and brought a sweetness to his portrayal that made Prior less a campy queen than a sad, sometimes angry, more whimsical gay man muddling through the hand he’s dealt.

History’s revolutions since the play’s Broadway debut in 1993 seem most obvious with this new Prior. When Part One rings down with the Angel of History breaking through the ceiling of his apartment to announce that the great work begins, Prior famously exclaims, “Very Stephen Spielberg.” Spinella played this remark in the original production as high camp, but Bryant delivers it with a kind of wonder, a shift in tone that seems to signal the wholesale difference of 2010 from 1993. Camp and irony as a response to the cataclysmic HIV/AIDS pandemic don’t read the same way now as they did then.

The campy spectacle of the whole play, in fact, is toned down in Greif’s production, which seems to me a sensible reinterpretation for a new age. Even the Angel (Robin Weigert) is more human here than the abstracted, mythic figure portrayed by Ellen McLaughlin on Broadway. What seems to be an inherent goodness and warmth emanates from Weigert’s face as the Angel. Rather than a frightening godhead determined to stop the flow of time, this Angel seems a happily revivifying visitor, a good fairy rather than an evil harbinger of pending doom.

The wires on which Weigert flies in are obvious in Greif’s production. The Angel moves on a pulley system nearly to the lip of the apron, rather than floating in the upstage right corner of the scene where Wolfe put McLaughlin. She’s less remote, as a result, and more alive, less foreboding and more entrancing. (On this, for one of the first times ever, I seem to agree with Ben Brantley, in his October 28, 2010, New York Times review of the production.) I don’t know what this shift will mean for Part Two: Petestroika, but I’m eager to see.

Robin Bartlett, as the formidable Hannah Pitt, is off to a good start in Part One, although it’s difficult to erase the memory of the wonderful Kathleen Chalfant in the ensemble of roles Bartlett now assumes. Frank Wood, as Roy Cohn, brings perhaps the most captivating change of tone to his role, playing Cohn as a slithering snake, running his tongue constantly across his lips between the very wet deliveries of his lines. Cohn’s predatory sexuality reads very clearly in Wood’s performance, but his Jewishness—which seems highlighted by Wood’s choices—is repulsive in newly unsettling ways.

By contrast, Quinto, as Louis, barely reads as Jewish at all. Toning down the character’s neuroses, and with it, his excessive hand gestures and speech patterns, Quinto loses some of Louis’s motivating ethnicity. As a result, this version of Angels, so far, seems more about assimilation than about difference—Jewish or gay male or, so far, Mormon, for that matter. I’m not sure that’s the wrong choice for the play, in 2010, as in what I’ve seen already, the production speaks to something more humanist and universal than it did in 1993, when representing gay and Jewish difference on Broadway so complexly seemed like such an historical triumph.

But I’m only halfway through this revival of Angels in America. I see Part Two: Perestroika at the end of this week, and will report back on the grand finale. But I left Part One: Millennium Approaches moved and fed, buoyed by Kushner’s enduring text and by Greif’s intelligent, intimate production.

‘Til then,

The Feminist Spectator

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Black Swan

Natalie Portman deftly defies the genre conventions of what would otherwise be a predictable, unsettling melodrama about an unhinged ballet dancer who goes not so quietly crazy just as her career takes off. Because of Portman’s uncanny empathy for her character, the over-the-top camera angles and story lines of Darren Aronofsky’s The Black Swan aren’t quite as irritating as they might be without a lead actor who brings such nuanced insight and intuition to the role.

Portman’s plays Nina, an utterly, single-mindedly devoted ballerina with a prestigious New York City ballet company. Her technique is perfect but she lacks the requisite passion for the leading roles. The company’s artistic director, a French-accented martinet named “Thomas” (but pronounced “Tomah”), rewards Nina by casting her as the white and the black swan in his “avant-garde” production of Swan Lake, but only after he attacks her sexually and she bites his lips defending herself in response.

One of the film’s most interesting insights is into the twisted relationship between male ballet impresarios and their female dancers. Vincent Cassel plays Thomas with a cruel sneer in his upper lip and a leer in his eyes as he challenges Nina to give up her quest for perfection so that she might convincingly portray the evil and seductive Black Swan with the wild abandon he conceives for the role. That he uses his own body against hers to force her to find her strength is part of what Aronofsky’s film wants to critique, but also partly what makes watching it uncomfortable. Thomas doesn’t even pretend there’s any other way to “get” the performance he wants from his star but to sexually humiliate her publicly and to push her physical boundaries privately. Nina wants the role so badly she’ll do anything to get it and then keep it, even as she becomes more and more deranged. As her relationship with Thomas gets more and more entwined, she begins to suffer from a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, idealizing and even identifying with Thomas and his mercurial cruelty.

Haunting the proceedings as a cautionary object lesson is Beth (Winona Ryder), the aging (that is, over 30), once-glorious star of the company who’s forced into retirement so that Nina can take her place. All the dancers want to be Beth; when Nina sneaks into the older woman’s dressing room before her star casting is announced, she steals Beth’s lipstick, a pack of cigarettes, and a letter opener, totemic objects that Nina carries as talismans toward her own success.

But Beth’s precipitous tumble from the top to the bottom turns ugly when she won’t go gracefully into retirement. Instead, she causes a scene at a benefit party and then throws herself into New York City traffic, landing in a lonely hospital room where she languishes with ugly, disfiguring and debilitating scars. She sits in a wheelchair, her head canted down at a painful angle as she contemplates the cruelties of fate. Sadly, Ryder’s shrewish portrayal of the vanquished star mirrors too closely the details of her own career, and her one-dimensional, caricatured acting doesn’t help redeem her performance or the character. Nina, fascinated by the woman she’s replacing, visits Beth in her hospital room as some sort of weird penance for precipitating the star’s fate, but the visits aren’t instructive so much as increasingly macabre and violent as Nina’s reality begins to shatter.

Aronofsky signals his vision of his own leading lady with heavy-handed shots of Portman fragmented and multiplied by the various mirrors in which her life is continually reflected. In the claustrophobic apartment she shares with her equally insane mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), a mirror by the front door is cut into pie-shaped wedges that breaks Nina’s image into pieces, and the three-sided mirror in which she practices and obsessively laces and re-laces her toe shoes ensures that even at home, she’s always onstage.

Nina’s mother, it seems, was a corps member herself before she stopped dancing to raise Nina. No father is evident, just the suffocating co-dependency of two women who represent different generations of the same dream. Erica both wants Nina to succeed and desperately needs her to fail, so that her daughter will cling to her, imprisoned in the child-like state Erica insists on preserving. Nina’s bedroom is lined with rows of white and pink stuffed animals that stare down at her bed, and every night, she goes to sleep with the tinny music box sounds of “Swan Lake” that her mother sets in motion to soothe her. Erica intrudes on Nina’s privacy, checking the ever-worsening rash that blooms across her daughter’s back, chiding her for mutilating herself and at the same time, helping Nina hide her wounds. When Nina is cast in the lead role in Swan Lake, Erica doesn’t set out to sabotage her success, but willingly abets Nina’s fast downward spiral when it begins.

The real agent of Nina’s downfall is the woman who might otherwise be her savior. Lily (a stunning Mila Kunis) arrives in the company from LA full of self-confident sexuality and the distinctly unballet-like languor of the west coast. Nina catches a glimpse of her first on a subway, distracted from her own image in its Plexiglas windows by Lily’s hair and the headphones she wears. Lily makes her first appearance at the studio by banging open and closed the door while Nina is dancing, causing her to stumble in her audition for Swan Lake. But Lily’s laxity proves a refreshing counter-balance to a ballet world in which young women are wound tight, can’t eat, throw up what they do get down, and like Nina, are so disciplined to be perfect that they have no lives outside their dancing.

Lily, the film’s own black swan, loves sensuality and sexuality in equal measure. After she and Nina get off to a rocky start, Lily visits Nina at home, shocking both her and Erica with her brashness. Undone by Erica’s haranguing, Nina impulsively goes to a bar with Lily, where she’s persuaded to take a disinhibiting drug that Lily insists will just relax her and only last for two hours, “most.” Tempted by her desire to be free of her mother, and by Thomas’s insistence that she “touch herself” as homework to help her loosen up, Nina lets Lily drug her cocktail and gets very uninhibited indeed.

The two women flirt with men who are deeply disinterested in ballet—to Nina’s shock, since the art forms her entire world—then dance together wildly in a scene shot in pink light and edited frenetically to represent Nina’s descent into drug-induced ecstasy. The evening ends when Lily makes a pass at Nina in a taxi, and Nina brings her home, to the shock and dismay of Erica, who tries to batter down her bedroom door while the two young women have very wild, hot, and explicit sex.

The sex scene is the film’s pivot point, as it demonstrates how much Nina represses for her art, and how passionate indeed she can be. High as a kite, Nina won’t stand for her mother’s interdictions, and pulls Lily into her bedroom, where they rip off one another’s clothes and practically swallow each other’s tongues. Aronofsky films and edits this scene, too, with close-ups of body parts and quick jump cuts that heighten the intensity, until he finally focuses in on Nina’s sexual awakening under Lily’s ministrations. The scene reveals that other side of the carefully controlled artist is a young woman of painful depth and desire, who revels in just the kind of passion Thomas has been so eager to induce.

But the next morning, things go quickly awry. Lily is gone, but the pole Nina uses to keep her bedroom door propped closed hasn’t been disturbed. Nina wakes hung-over and late for rehearsal, where she finds Lily already in costume, performing in her role. Immediately, Lily becomes a palpable threat to Nina’s ascendancy, and when Nina refers to their evening together, Lily accuses her of having a “lezzie wet dream,” and denies that anything happened. From there, Nina’s sanity teeters ever closer to the brink, and Aronofsky plays even more fast and loose with what’s real for her and what’s real for us.

From the film’s beginning, moments that seem true are suddenly proven false. In the bathroom of the ballet benefit party, Nina’s ragged cuticles begin to bleed and she can’t get them to stop, eventually peeling a three-inch strip of flesh from her finger. But when she’s interrupted by, as it happens, Lily knocking on the door, Nina looks down to see her finger miraculously healed. This girl bleeds terribly—her toenails break from dancing on them, her back bleeds from scratching, and blood continually reddens the water in which she bathes and washes. But we’re never sure if her wounds are real, and neither, it seems, is Nina.

[Spoiler alert.] In fact, in the film’s climactic scene, Nina seems to kill Lily in a violent rage, shattering her dressing room’s full-length mirror with her rival’s head and then dragging her body onto the cold tile of her bathroom floor. When Lily’s blood seeps under the door, Nina covers it with a towel and goes off to triumphantly perform the second act of Swan Lake, where she nails her performance as the black swan with galvanizing passion and rage, murderous in her seductress’s make-up.

But when she returns to her dressing room to dress for the ballet’s third and final act, Lily comes knocking on her door to compliment Nina’s performance. The body in the bathroom is gone and so is the blood. Nina redresses herself in her white swan costume, but as she pulls on her white feathers, she finds in her own abdomen the seeping red wound she thought she’d inflicted in Lily’s. With morbid fascination and a strange glint of triumph, she retracts the shard of broken mirror she seemed to have used to kill her enemy.

As she returns to the stage to finish the ballet exultantly, we’re not sure if this, too, is a hallucination. The white swan falls to her death and Nina falls to the mattress that catches her behind the set, where her fellow dancers and Thomas surround her, extolling her glory and her talent. He calls her “little princess,” the affectionate but diminishing name he once used for Beth (just as Lily predicted he would), then notices with dismay that her white costume is marred by a spreading stain of very red blood. But as she lies there, apparently dying, Nina says both “I was perfect” and “I felt it,” fulfilling her own expectations and Thomas’s wish.

In Aronofsky’s vision, she’s also finally become a woman, her technical perfection infused with the reckless passion of adulthood and her cocoon-like innocence stained with the menstrual-like blood of her masochistic wound. The swan in the story dies, and while it’s not clear if Nina survives or not, we’re supposed to think she’s at the very least killed off the part of herself that held her too-adult passion and desire at bay.

I suppose Aronofsky also wants us to consider the depravity of those who give themselves to an art that gives so little in return. The rewards, The Black Swan suggests, are fleeting, ephemeral evenings of triumph and applause, which fades too quickly as ballet dancers inevitably age. As my film-going companion, Stacy, pointed out, adoring fans are faceless and strangely unrepresented in the film. Nina peeks out at the audience before she performs, but it’s really the adoration of her colleagues that she craves and finally achieves when they surround her fallen body at the film’s end.

Aronofsky indicts the cruelty through which Thomas realizes his vision of Swan Lake by manipulating the already unstable Nina, but the writer-director’s camera also enjoys a bit too much how the story makes Nina suffer, and happily represents her as a martyr to her art.

Thriller conventions bring The Black Swan its rather perverse excitement, as Aronofsky keeps the viewer off balance, like Nina, through quick confusing cuts to a murky woman who keeps turning up in the troubled young woman’s fantasy/reality. When Nina’s masturbating, following Thomas’s instructions to “loosen up,” nearly at climax she turns her head and sees another woman sitting on the chair in her bedroom, watching her. The cut happens so quickly, it’s not clear if the woman is Erica, the mother, or another young woman whose face and figure recurs in Nina’s dreams/fantasies, who may or may not be a younger Erica or some other Nina-style doppelganger. I kept expecting some previous trauma that would explain Nina’s insanity, but Aronofsky never delivers a back-story to illuminate her strange psychology. That choice heightens the film’s suggestion that it’s her single-minded dedication to art—encouraged by her similarly obsessed mother—that’s driven Nina mad.

Barbara Hershey is convincing as the over-bearing, bitter mother who watches her daughter achieve the career she always wanted. Erica lives through Nina and resents her deeply, calling incessantly on Nina’s cellphone, which displays “MOM” in insistent capital letters as the phone bleats plaintively. Erica doesn’t seem to be employed, but instead sits alone in a small room in their apartment (how these two afford a three-bedroom flat in Manhattan is never explained), creating Munch-like paintings of her own (or is it Nina’s?) face, images that seem to scream and follow Nina with their eyes when she peeks into the room. Erica and Nina’s bond is both incestuous and ambivalent, as they’re attracted and repulsed by everything they mean to one another.

Nina’s fantasy hook-up with Lily also seems to sublimate her strange push-pull relationship with Erica, while at the same time, to represent the entirely incestuous, homosocial, female-dominated world of ballet. Strangely, though, it’s also a heterosexual world, in Aronofsky’s conception. Lily enflames Nina’s jealousy during a performance when she flirts with the callous guy who’s dancing the white swan’s romantic object. The only obvious gay man in this world is the accompanist, who finally slams the lid on his piano after hours of solo rehearsing with Nina, telling her superciliously that he has a life (she, clearly, doesn’t) and leaving her in the dark as the building’s lights shut down.

What, finally, to make of The Black Swan? Aronofsky has created an absorbing, if sometimes repellent, Grand Guignol of a film about artistic cruelty and excess, one that might be laughable if the leading performances (Portman, Kunis, Cassel, and Hershey, especially) weren’t so heart-felt, layered, and persuasive. Portman’s shattered poise, shaky vulnerability, masterful artistry, and desperate desire for both success and real connection make Nina a character who’s difficult to wrest your eyes from. Even as Aronofsky dismantles the foundation of her world and her sanity, and keeps the viewer equally unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, Portman holds us squarely on Nina’s side, hoping she’ll be victorious against all the forces lined up against her.

Too bad that Nina’s victory requires a self-mutilation so extreme, she can only succeed by succumbing to her own death. That’s a message that’s not good for the girls.

The Feminist Spectator