I recently saw the perfect heterosexual date-movie double bill: Burlesque and Black Swan.
Yes, I said heterosexual. Sure, the latter is about ballet and the former has Cher and Christina, but the two films are twin journeys into the voyeuristic world of ripped female bodies and supercharged girl-on-girl tension. And while one comes with the higher pedigree, I can't necessarily say it's the better film.
Certainly, we're comparing McIntosh and Sunkist -- or at least that's what one would think going in. Black Swan is auteur high-art, Burlesque is guilty pleasure. One is directed by Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream), the other by Steve Antin, founder of the Pussycat Dolls and possessor of one movie to his credit, the esteemed Glass House: The Good Mother. One is about the high-art dance form of ballet, the other about the more base burlesque. One is clothed in classical music with Clint Mansell's adaptation of Tchaikovsky, the other has Cher and Christina.
Burlesque treads on old ground, that of the naive young girl from (where else?) a small town who sets out to the big and sinful city with stars in her eyes and dreams of making it. It's an old story that predates the Depression-era classic 42nd Street, one so familiar that Antin (who with Susannah Grant revised Diablo Cody's original script) barely goes through the motions in establishing the backstory for Ali (Aguilera, who's better than expected) before placing her smack dab in the City of Angels. With a few friendly smiles and chance opportunities, Ali gets her big break on the stage at The Burlesque Lounge, a struggling theater owned by struggling theater owner Tess (Cher). The Showgirls setup is completed with alcoholic dancer/catfighting competitor Nikki (a sexy and surprisingly adept Kristen Bell) and slick L.A. developer Marcus Berger (Eric Dane).
To be sure, the movie has many cheesy moments. My favorite: the musical number for Tess, "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me," inserted with no connection to the plot other than to provide a personal statement (symbolism highlighted, circled, arrows pointing to) for her character -- and, of course, a soundtrack release for Cher, who assumes a full-on Bon Jovi pose while belting it out for an audience of one, the club's sound man, who can't help nodding at this profound teachable moment. But this is never a movie that takes itself too seriously. It can be bad, but it knows it's bad, revels in its badness, and in doing so somehow becomes good.
What's most surprising is how underneath all the fake eyelashes and pasties, the film's ostensibly bitchy and cutthroat world is a largely benevolent one. (And, it must be said, we don't really see much burlesque going on at Burlesque.) Outwardly steely Tess is really motherly, bad-boy Marcus is refreshingly up front about his motives, and even rival Nikki ultimately melts into a smile for Ali, destined to be her BFF. Love interest Jack Miller (Cam Gigandet) is nice, really nice, then slightly less nice before he's nice again. Ali shuns Berger not because he's immoral, but because his values are slightly more capitalistic than hers. Ultimately, the atmosphere of Burlesque has more in common with the communal dynamics of Howard Hawks's To Have and Have Not and Ball of Fire than with Verhoeven's knives-and-nails-in-the-back cinema.
The delusional ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) inhabits a much colder world in Black Swan. Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is manipulative and lecherous as the director of a New York City ballet company. Lily (Mila Kunis) is a Nina's professional and sexual rival and frenemy -- the Gina Gershon in this high-art Showgirls to Portman's Elizabeth Berkeley (with apologies to Portman, who is good as always here). Nina's unstable, domineering mother (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer who never made it beyond the corps, wavers between overbearing concern, vicarious arousal, and Münchausen syndrome by proxy; even she seems to want to get into the sick S&M game, demanding a little too lustfully to Nina, "Take off your shirt!" so that she can inspect her daughter for self-inflicted wounds. And there's Winona Ryder as the laughably over-the-top former principal now cast aside, a fate implied for Nina's future.
With its high-art wrappings, name director, and instant Oscar campaign, we're certainly meant to think that Black Swan is the better film of the two. Aronofsky's grainy, shaky close-ups of ballet shoe ties and broken toe nails clearly position the film as a companion piece to The Wrestler, a brilliant film, in their examinations of occupational hazards within the performing world. But while Aronofsky's most recent film presented a realistic arc and fully fleshed out characters, his latest one keeps revisiting the same leitmotifs -- domineering mother, damaged daughter, domineering mother, damaged daughter -- none too lightly. Nina's doppelgänger delusions stop surprising us the second or third time, and Hershey's character, an amalgam of countless screen mothers from throughout film history, suggest the director's portrayal of motherhood hasn't progressed much since Requiem. Even when the director achieves brilliance, as he does in the closing scene when Portman completes her transformation from virginal white swan to predatory black swan, he short-circuits it with an ending that inspires just as much eye-rolling as eye-raising. What we're left with is equal parts Red Shoes and Repulsion, without being as revolutionary as either one. Black Swan is simply higher-priced cheese, Aronofsky's camembert to Antin's cheddar.