Darren Aronofsky’s gorgeous, intense new film, Black Swan, which comes out today, follows four women bound up in the drama of Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet Swan Lake: the story of the virginal white swan driven to suicide by her seductive black twin. It unspools largely in the mind of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a high-strung ballerina by turns youthfully arrogant and painfully insecure, who struggles to reconcile her own impossibly high standards with her desire to cut loose and live like a regular human being.
The movie has been described, not least by Aronofsky himself, as a horror flick, and his company of swans are playing at something genuinely terrifying: the myriad ways in which women, real ones, beautiful ones, destroy each other, and themselves, in the pursuit of perfection. Because they are all obsessed—with dancing, mostly, but also with each other—they make for convenient archetypes, gliding through the gray confines of a Manhattan that mirrors the real place, but feels as claustrophobic as a stage set. We get just enough of their psychology to squirm at their merciless pecking, but we never find out what made them all so crazy in the first place. Once you wake up from the powerful spell of the film, it becomes impossible not to wonder about the texture of these women’s lives beyond the frame.
Specifically, it’s hard not to wonder whether Black Swan isn’t, beneath its glossy surface, actually a Jewish movie, despite the fact that it doesn’t have any of the hallmarks viewers have come to expect in movies about Jews: no menorahs, no horas, and very little food. All of those things are in plentiful supply in Barney’s Version, the film adaptation of Canadian writer Mordecai Richler’s final novel, which also opens today for a limited Oscar-qualifying release in New York and Los Angeles, ahead of a wider run early next year. The movie, which stars Paul Giamatti in the title role, is laden with kitsch—Barney’s father, Izzy (Dustin Hoffman), even parades around flashing a gigantic gold chai around his neck—but, ironically, winds up being less interesting on Jewish terms than Black Swan.
Aronofsky, raised in middle-class Brooklyn, has a long history of mining the rich veins of Semitic neurosis. His first movie, Pi, tracked a paranoid math prodigy named Max Cohen into a tangled web of Kabbalist numerology spun by Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn. (Tagline: Faith in chaos.) His 2000 film Requiem for a Dream starred Ellen Burstyn as Sara Goldfarb, a lonely, unmistakably Yiddish-accented widow living in Brighton Beach and looking for a reason not to let go of appearances.
In Black Swan, Nina Sayers (Portman) and her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), may have an Irish last name, but they live like stereotypical highbrow, single, secular Jewish Upper West Side women, and they fight like any overly attached Jewish mother and daughter: over food, over clothes, over the provenance of a particularly flashy pair of diamond earrings. The sole biographical detail anchored in the real world is bequeathed to Lily (Mila Kunis), Nina’s rival in the corps de ballet: she is, we learn, fresh from San Francisco, a fact that may do more to explain her bottomless stash of drugs than anything about her behavior. Exotic and carefree where Nina is icy and repressed, Lily is the only person who shows any real concern for Nina’s well-being, but Nina is blinded by envy, albeit tempered with attraction and, eventually, outright lust. Both of them are haunted by Beth (Winona Ryder), an aging prima ballerina whose own destructive freefall is supposed to provide an object lesson in the terrible transience of glory.
Of these four characters—played by actresses who, in real life, all have claims to Jewishness—it is Hershey’s Erica who is, if one looks closer, a conceptual linchpin. “She’s a mother in hell,” Hershey told the Los Angeles Times. “She’s at times jealous, at times suffocating, at times too involved.” At home, Erica, a former corps dancer who gave up her career when she got pregnant, uses the lounge in their warrenlike apartment as a studio for painting endless portraits of her daughter. (This is creepy enough, even before they come to life in a hallucinatory sequence.) As dancers, they both obsess about food, but Erica turns it into an instrument of guilt and control: After Nina nails the lead role, her mother buys her a whole strawberry shortcake, then threatens to throw it out intact when her daughter refuses a slice. Erica knows, on some level, that Nina is already an adult—at one point she reminds her about the dangers of sex—but she still can’t bear to relinquish control of her daughter, inspecting her body for flaws and even undressing her like a helpless doll when she gets home from practice. And yet, she also manages to soothe a distraught Nina to sleep with a maternal caress.
If Black Swan were just a ballet, Erica would be the evil sorceress, holding her innocent victim in her clutches. But it’s a movie, and what Aronofsky serves up, intentionally or not, is an uncommonly well-wrought portrait of the classic push-pull of Jewish mothers and daughters: You’re perfect, but not perfect enough. Their relationship curdles under the pressure of smothering closeness, but that doesn’t make it any less engrossing, just more complex: Nina might routinely hit “ignore” when her cell phone flashes “Mom” on caller ID, but when she finds out she will be the next Swan Queen, the first thing she does is lock herself in a bathroom stall to call home and report the news: “He picked me, Mommy!”
Barney’s Version, by contrast, is a lovely picture that has all the touchstones of a Jewish genre film. But, despite all the schmaltz and hockey, it betrays what made Richler’s book so Jewishly interesting: how a guy from the largely vanished world of Montreal’s working-class Mile End navigates being an outsider in his own increasingly bourgeois community.
The book, widely acclaimed as one of the great Jewish novels of the last 20 years, recounts the life story of Barney Panofsky, a successful TV producer scarred by two traumas: being tried, wrongly, for the murder of his best friend Boogie, and being left by his third wife, Miriam. He travels to Europe, marries, returns home to Canada, marries again, and then falls in love with Miriam Greenberg, a self-improving figure from the wrong side of the tracks who doesn’t let Barney’s cigars or bad habits stop her from seeing the best in him.
The film sticks to all of these plot points, but with a twist: Miriam Greenberg is now Miriam Grant, and she isn’t Jewish. It may have been a minor concession to commercial viability, like moving chunks of the action from Toronto to New York, but it has a cascading effect, turning the movie into just another story about a Jewish guy who gets the non-Jewish girl—against the odds—and then loses her. At Barney’s wedding to the carping woman known only as “the Second Mrs. P”—a JAP down to the ends of her frizzy curls—Izzy Panofsky tells the rabbi, “Everyone knows the Almighty tests the Jewish man with two great temptations: shiksas and bacon.” Right on cue, Barney spies Miriam, played by the luminous Rosamund Pike, out in the foyer. They flirt, and she leaves him a love letter in the form of the final Stanley Cup scores, which Barney had been banned from watching during the reception. “For the first time in my life,” Barney tells Boogie, “I am truly, seriously, irretrievably in love.”
Blame Judd Apatow and his merry band of schlubs: We’ve all seen this guy and his receding Jew-fro before. Miriam Grant, for all her beauty and wit, is, to Barney and to the audience, simply a regular-featured WASP escape fantasy, whereas Miriam Greenberg was the redemption of every horrible Jewish woman caricatured in the last 50 years of American Jewish fiction: a generous, perceptive figure who saw all of Barney’s kaleidoscopic flaws and quirks but tolerated them because they were what made him a real person, and something close to perfect.