Black Swan (2010)

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The only person standing in your way is you.  Featured dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a young NYC ballerina whose passion for the dance rules every facet of her life which is rigidly controlled at home by her disappointed domineering single mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) who says she gave up everything to have Nina (but she never made it out of the corps). When the company’s artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for their opening production of Swan Lake, Nina is his first choice, perfect for the role of the White Swan. She has competition in newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) however:  she personifies the Black Swan – her look, her clothing, her behaviour are literally delicate Nina’s polar opposite. As rivalry between the two dancers transforms into a twisted friendship and then into a fiercer rivalry as Lily is cast as Nina’s alternate, Nina’s dark side gradually emerges … Darren Aronofsky’s ballet film states its themes in the first frames:  a battle to the death onstage and then a hallucinatory trip tunnelling into the dark underground of New York City’s underbelly on the subway – a kind of diabolism seems writ large from the off. This psychological horror’s most recent comparator is probably Jacob’s Ladder and that’s three decades old.  But it’s really a film about femininity. The sheer repulsive physicality of it is offputting and not for the squeamish:  the bulimic purging; the bloodied squashed misshapen feet; ripping off of cuticles; continuous self-harming – Nina’s long nails tear at her shoulder and then she sees feathers sprouting in the holes; licking a spot of cake frosting constitutes a meal;  and when Beth takes the knife Nina has returned and stabs herself in the face. The sheer proliferation of close ups of skin is revolting. It’s also in the little things – Nina thinking everyone is talking about her (they are); the lights being switched off when she needs to rehearse;  the piano accompanist refusing to stay late; the need to please the director – when he asks her about her sexual experience and tells her to masturbate and she wakes up and does it in her bed only to find Mom in the chair beside her … Now that’s horrifying! The truth is when I look at you all I see is the white swan. Yes you’re beautiful, fearful, and fragile. Ideal casting. But the black swan? It’s a hard fucking job to dance both  Nina’s fragile mind is devastated by the pressure to perform with feeling rather than mere technical skill and first she thinks she sees herself everywhere in the form of a double – behind her own reflection, walking towards her in the subway – and her mind becomes fragmented in her own image. Then she sees … Lily. Lily the Black Swan. Lily who smokes, drinks, takes drugs and then goes down on her. Or does she?  The lines between dream and reality are blurred. Portman is great as the ingenue who needs to please and we are reminded of The Red Shoes, that classic balletomane’s film, and there are echoes of that madness and drive for perfection everywhere. Hershey, Kunis and Ryder are no less good in their supporting roles, buffeting the central thematic, the narrative’s corps de ballet. This is about obsession and we follow Nina right over the other side and into out and out madness and disbelief.  The climax brings everything together in the most devastating, logical fashion. Performance is all.  Mad, crazed and melodramatic, this is absolutely on the money when it comes to female (and mother-daughter) rivalry and is literally a danse macabre.  Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin.

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Can-Can (1960)

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If in Lesbos, a pure Lesbian can, Baby, you can can-can too. In Montmartre, Paris, 1896, nightclub owner Simone Pistache (Shirley MacLaine) is known for her performances of the can-can, a provocative (panty-free) dance recently outlawed for being immoral.  The women in the club, including Claudine (Juliet Prowse) use their feminine wiles to get the police to look the other way (eventually). Though Simone’s dancing delights patrons to no end, it also attracts the ire of the self-righteous Judge Philippe Forrestier (Louis Jourdan), who aims to punish her. The judge hatches a plot to photograph Simone in the act and ends up falling for her – much to the chagrin of her boyfriend, handsome lawyer François Durnais (Frank Sinatra)… Based on Abe Burrows’ musical comedy, this was written by Dorothy Kingsley and Charles Lederer. The music (by Cole Porter) was arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle, famous for his work with Sinatra, whose duet with Judge Paul Barriére (Maurice Chevalier) of the opening and closing number I Love Paris was deleted from the release print. MacLaine gives a barnstorming performance in the lead and Sinatra is … himself. Let’s Do It, You Do Something To Me and Just One of Those Things are among the great songs. It’s beautifully staged (with Hollywood’s interior decorator to the stars Tony Duquette getting a consultant’s credit) and witty, with particularly smart lyrics. The ladies and gentlemen are costumed in great style by Irene Sharaff. It may be set in Paris but it was shot (gorgeously, by Billy Daniels) on the studio lot and was the occasion of a famous set visit by Nikita Khrushchev who denounced the scene as depraved in what he believed was a propaganda coup. It wasn’t remotely as decadent as having somewhere between 20 and 60 million of your own citizens murdered (why keep count) but hey, that’s showbiz. Directed by Walter Lang.

The Greatest Showman (2017)

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Any other critic might call it a celebration of humanity. A young Phineas Barnum and his tailor father Philo are mocked at the home of the wealthy Hallett family but he falls in love with their lovely daughter Charity and they keep in touch by letter when she is sent to school. When he grows up the adult Phineas (Hugh Jackman) marries Charity (Michelle Williams) and moves from job to job while rearing two little girls in poverty until he hits on the idea of a show with nature’s oddities, creating a community of people who are shunned – Tom Thumb, the Bearded Lady, the Irish Giant, et al. He persuades high society playwright Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to join forces to give him respectability and their success brings them fame – even Queen Victoria wants an audience with them. Phineas meets Swedish songbird Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and mortgages everything to bring her all over the USA but she wants him as well – and betrays him, lying to the press, prompting Charity to leave him. When he returns to NYC protesters burn down the circus and Philip runs into the burning building to try to rescue his beloved Anne (Zendaya) an acrobat of colour whom he must battle society to spend his life with …  This moves quickly and expeditiously, daring you to see the cracks – in fact it’s really a stage musical with few concessions to anything you don’t know outside the business of show. It’s got a very inclusive message which is right-on for the current climate. Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon and directed by first-timer Michael Gracey, there were reshoots apparently supervised by James Mangold who receives an executive producer credit – he had worked closely with Jackman on Logan.  It all adds up to a very nice night out at the musical theatre – even if it bears little relationship to the reality behind the real-life subject or even the musical Barnum by Cy Coleman, Paul Stewart and Mark Bramble. The songs are by Benj Pasek and Michael Paul and bear no relationship with any music produced in the nineteenth century:  to call the music ersatz would be misleading, it’s very contemporary and could come from any new musical you’ve seen or heard lately. However it’s a great showcase for some heartfelt, showstopping numbers  – particularly Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) leading on This Is Me and Efron and Zendaya’s Rewrite the Stars. There are few dramatic segues so this won’t trouble your brain overly much:  it’s a swaggering, confident piece of work which has little faith in the audience – a criticism constantly made of Barnum himself by the resident journo critic James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks) who chronicles his highs and his lows but eventually comes round.  He says it there, it comes out here. Praise is due cinematographer Seamus McGarvey for keeping everything looking absolutely splendid.

The Red Shoes (1948)

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– Why do you want to dance? – Why do you want to live? Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) is a ballerina torn between her dedication to dance and her desire to love. Her autocratic, imperious mentor (and ‘attractive brute’) Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) who has his own ballet company, urges to her to forget anything but ballet. When his star retires he turns to Vicky. Vicky falls for a charming young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) who Lermontov has taken under his wing. He creates The Red Shoes ballet for the impresario and Vicky is to dance the lead. Eventually Vicky, under great emotional stress, must choose to pursue either her art or her romance, a decision that carries deadly consequences… The dancer’s film – or the film that makes you want to dance. An extraordinary interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, this sadomasochistic tribute to ballet and the nutcases who populate the performing universe at unspeakable cost to themselves and those around them is a classic. A magnificent achievement in British cinema and the coming of age of the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger partnership, it is distinguished by its sheerly beautiful Technicolor cinematography by the masterful Jack Cardiff. It also boasts key performances by dancers Robert Helpmann, Ludmila Tcherina and Leonide Massine with a wordless walk-on by Marie Rambert. The delectable pastiche score is by Brian Easdale. Swoony and unforgettable, this is a gloriously nutty film about composers, musicians, performers, dancers and the obsessive creative drive – to death. Said to be inspired by the relationship between Diaghilev and Nijinsky, this was co-written by Powell and Pressburger with additional dialogue by Keith Winter. It was a huge hit despite Rank’s mealy-mouthed ad campaign and in its initial two-year run in the US at just one theatre it made over 2 million dollars.

 

The Turning Point (1977)

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Although like most female humans Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes was part of my upbringing I would not say that I’ve ever been a real balletomane and this film must work better for those who are. Because even though it’s ostensibly about the relationship between an ageing prima ballerina and her former rival, now a housewife and mother to an upcoming star, there’s an awful lot of performance. A lot. Arthur Laurents’ screenplay was based more or less on the friendship between dancers Isabel Mirrow Brown and Nora Kaye (who was a co-producer with Laurents and director Herbert Ross, who was married to Kaye. The three had a complex personal/sexual relationship.) Leslie Browne – Brown’s real-life daughter by fellow dancer Kelly Kingman Brown – plays Emilia, the teenage dancer who’s talent-spotted by The Company when they come to town in Oklahoma City, reuniting Emma (Anne Bancroft as the fictionalised incarnation of Nora Kaye) with DeeDee (Shirley MacLaine, as the fictionalised Isabel Mirrow). DeeDee’s memories of her life as a successful dancer and giving it all up when becoming pregnant by fellow dancer Wayne (Tom Skerritt), now her husband and partner in a dance school, start churning. When she accompanies Emilia, Emma’s god daughter, to NYC, to spend the summer and realise her dream, she strays from her marriage, is shocked by her ambitious daughter’s affair with the male lead Yuri (Mikhail Baryshnikov) and eventually has it all out with lifelong rival Emma over whether she lost the lead in Anna Karenina years ago due to her pregnancy:  and she wonders, Was she ever really any good? It’s a question that has haunted her for nearly two decades. The fact that their confrontation ends in a catfight was a point of contention among critics. However as funny as that scene is – and it winds up being highly comic – it is an emotionally and dramatically logical conclusion to a relationship between women constrained by fiercely deprived physical experiences and discipline:  there have been major psychological consequences to choosing these lives. Finally they can break free and tell people who they really are (up to a pointe…) And as Emilia’s star rises, Emma’s falls, and DeeDee comes to terms with the reality of her own decisions. Baryshnikov’s real-life lover Gelsey Kirkland had been offered the role of Emilia but she was being treated for drug addiction at the time, which is how Browne ended up playing a version of herself. There is a narrative thread about male dancers and homosexuality in the film and why DeeDee might have married Wayne but Yuri is like a cockerel in a hen house. A terrific work about women, marriage and career and there’s great stuff about the business of running a company and all the bitchiness one expects from a backstage movie. But there’s so much ballet!!! It shares the record for the most nominations for an Academy Award without a win. Bancroft and MacLaine are really marvellous and hit all the notes, but I wonder how this would have been if the producer’s first choice – for whichever of the lead roles she wanted – had been accepted by Princess Grace of Monaco. Wow.