Films about the Ballet

Let’s go backwards. You’ve probably seen Natalie Portman in 2010 in her academy winning performance, The Black Swan.

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In Swan Lake, Princess Odette is pure and lovely and represented as the white swan. The character Nina is the white swan in life. Her mentor Thomas Leroy, the designing choreographer and creative director of the New York City Ballet, casts Nina as the Swan Princess in his upcoming season. The challenge for Nina is playing the opposite role, Odile, the black swan. Nina cannot turn herself into her evil, dark twin and almost loses the role to another dancer. The great part of Natalie Portman’s performance is Nina’s transformation into the dark side of herself. She hallucinates and experiences dark trips until the audience cannot tell what is real and what is imaginary. Through Darren Aronofsky’s direction, the audience descends with Nina and the journey is disturbing and thrilling. The defensive shields and the survival mechanisms which bring on abnormal behavior are intriguing in books and films. I like the interplay between the human struggle of good and evil and Nina’s grapple with good and evil in herself. Darren Aronofsky takes chances, and I admire that. What was real and what was Nina’s descent into madness? Welcome the unreliable narrator.

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Nina struggles with a stressful career as prima ballerina in the competitive world of ballet. Adding to the nerve-wracking auditions and the self-discipline required to give the best performance of this classic role debilitates Nina. Her mother is an over-controlling, possessive woman who won’t let her daughter grow up. Always referring to Nina as the perfect little girl, Nina twists the concept of perfection into madness. As she internally transforms into her dark side, externally the audience sees this change through the cinematography. Nina plucks black feathers from her shoulders. She sees blood pouring out of her finger tips. The color black surrounds Nina. The scenes are filmed at night or back stage in the wings or in dark subways or in her shadowed makeup room. One of the more disturbing scenes occurs when she runs into her mother’s room and sees paintings of herself talking back to her. The jiggling of the eyes and the mouths laughing at her illustrate her complete mental break down. Finally, she wrestles with herself and kills the good side of her with a stab to the stomach claiming, “It’s my turn now!” It’s one of the best psychological thrillers ever.

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Okay, so The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) may not be exclusively about ballet, but the principal character, Cate Blanchett, plays one. Though she’s not anorexic looking like Portman, almost beefy for a ballerina, I thought her “line” was near-perfect. The film was one of my favorites of the decade, and Blanchett’s performance was exceptional because of her dancing ability. Director David Fincher’s shots were outstanding from the interior period settings (Russian hotel)to the battle scene (boat/bombing) during WWII. The special effects and make up made the film. Thanks to F. Scott Fitzgerald for the original short story for which Eric Roth based his screenplay. It was an original, curious script coming out of Hollywood. The special effects, the acting, and the story line make it a must for any mover goer. I loved watching Pitt go backwards in time while Cate’s character grew up and old. The supporting cast–Taraji P. Henson, Tilda Swinton, Julia Ormond, and Elle Fanning all added depth and originality to the overall production. While it won at the Oscars for Visual Effects, Art Direction, and Makeup,  Brad Pitt and Fincher lost top awards to Sean Penn (Milk) and director/film to Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire).

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The Turning Point, 1977.

This film was up for top film of the year with eleven awards but won none! That was the year Annie Hall won the principal awards. For me, the best part of The Turning Point was Mikhail Baryshnikov. Sorry, Anne and Shirley. I had the BIGGEST crush on the talented, leaping superstar from Russia. I was so upset when he married Jessica Lange and had a baby with her. Ha!

Even if you don’t know much about ballet or why one dancer is better than the other, take a look at the following video from Baryshnikov’s heighday in the late 70s, 80s.  The height of his leaps are legendary, and the difficulty of his turns and his “line” (the vertical center of his body) never veers off. That’s the mark of excellence.

The best film of all about the ballet is the classic The Red Shoes (1948). This is the film that inspired Martin Scorsese to join the film industry as a director and why you see his use of the color red in many of his films.

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Like The Black Swan, this is a story within a story. Written and produced by Michael Powell and Eric Pressburger, The Red Shoes is the story of Victoria, a young ballerina who joins a respected ballet company and becomes the lead dancer in a new ballet called The Red Shoes. The ballet is based upon the fairy tale from Hans Christian Anderson. The film stars ballet dancer/actress, Moira Shearer.

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Shearer as the black swan

The respect for the film centers around the cinematography by Jack Cardiff and his creative use of Technicolor.

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The Plot: Boris the creative designer behind the ballet hires Julian to compose the score. Julian and Victoria fall in love and the controlling Boris won’t tolerate the infidelity. The love triangle tugs and pushes Victoria to mental extremes. When you watch this great classic, enjoy the fifteen minute ballet sequence. If you appreciated American in Paris, you’d like this film.

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I can’t help but notice the similarities between The Black Swan and The Red Shoes. Lovely ladies driven to tragic ends by the strong task-masters who command and “own” their talent.  Makes for good movies, anyway.

4 thoughts on “Films about the Ballet

Add yours

  1. I would have never watched these movies until I danced ballet for a year as a favor to a friend. It is fun yet tragic to see just how many similarities there are with the actual field of ballet. There are a few on this list i have not seen! I’ll have to check them out!

  2. Ballet does seem to make for interesting cinema from what I’ve seen. I haven’t seen The Turning Point before, I guess I’ll have to check it out. The Red Shoes is one of my all-time favorites!

    1. Me, too! It’s just so beautiful. The Turning Point is okay. It must have been a weak year for it to have received so many nominations. Maybe I was too young to appreciate it. I bet a revisit, now that I’m a little older, I might appreciate it more. I will say, and do love Baryshnikov and if he’s in it, the dance is worth it….Thanks for your comments!

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