Black Swan

24/02/2011 20:57

Review of Black Swan (2010), dir. Darren Aronofsky (contains spoilers)

A virginal girl, pure and sweet, trapped in the body of a swan, desires freedom but only true love can break the spell. Her wish is nearly granted by the Prince, but before he can declare his love, her lustful twin, the Black Swan, tricks and seduces him. Devastated, the white swan leaps off a cliff killing herself and in death she finds freedom.

A head-spinning, macabre melodrama told with erotic intensity, a story about striving for perfection which turns out to be more than perfect. Being a prima ballerina requires the dedication of one’s whole being. The effortless grandiose flying of ballet dancers in theatre is an illusion which disguises years of practice, physical and mental training, unending desire for uncompromising perfection. Classical ballet can suck the life out of you, possess your senses and finally rob you of your sanity. “Lose yourself” is the director’s advice for the part of the Black Swan. Natalie Portman’s ballerina goes further than that: she loses her mind.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a dedicated ballerina dancing for the New York theatre company led by a controversial, but admired and highly respected theatre company impresario Thomas Leroy. For the upcoming new season he plans to re-image the classic Tchaikovsky’s play Swan Lake. The new production needs a new Swan Queen, a fresh face he can present to the world. Casting off his previous protégé and lover Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), he auditions for a new prima ballerina that will embody both the white and the black swan. Nina is perfect for the White Swan; she is beautiful, innocent, and fragile. But as for the Black Swan, “it’s a hard fucking job to dance both.” Dancing with rigorous precision, discipline and technique, obsessed to get every move right, she is just too perfect. Leroy wants to see lustful passion and sensuality, so she needs to undergo a metamorphosis from a bashful virgin to a tempting seductress.

Thomas is known for having affairs with his dancers. Aware of this, the virginal Nina dolls herself up, when she comes to his office to ask for the lead role in Swan Lake. In a desperate attempt of escape she presents a flash of evil lurking underneath by biting his lip, when he tries to seduce her. Thomas sees the capacity for dark passion and he picks her. As an understudy he casts Lily (Mila Kunis), a newcomer from San Francisco. Lily is all that Nina is striving for: sensuous, wild, bold and beguiling, oozing with sexuality. As the story unfolds, the tension between Nina and Thomas builds up. Her insane desire for artistic perfection slowly starts to eat away on her psyche. She becomes obsessed with her role and develops quite vivid hallucinations and paranoid delusions that result in her mental breakdown. She imagines Lily is after her, trying to take away her role and replace her. Meanwhile, Thomas is thrilled by Lily’s dancing -- the young woman is just ideal for the role of the Black Swan -- and criticizes Nina for her frigid style and demands that she “lose herself”. Struggling with her own sexuality, Lily personifies the subject of Nina’s sexual attraction as well as her professional challenger. She is torn between the advances of Thomas and her chief artistic rival.

Nina shares an apartment with her caring but overbearing mum (Barbara Hershey), a retired ballet dancer who projects her unfulfilled desires onto her sweet girl and pushes her to achieve what she herself failed to in her career. She turns all her perfectionism onto Nina, watching her every step as a watchdog. She is also responsible for Nina’s repressed sexuality (she has never had a serious relationship, let alone a sexual encounter), keeping her confined to her pink princessy room of a cell, kissing her goodnight, keeping an eye on her rash and even trimming her fingernails. 

Nina’s real and delusional worlds merge, transgressing the boundaries as the story draws to a close. The audience gets caught in a whirlwind of her haunting delusions scheming against her. Some of the fantasized parts are so elaborate that they escape even the most attentive eye. Before the opening night Nina goes to hospital to visit Beth who has jumped in front of a car the night Leroy said goodbye to her. Nina expresses her admiration saying that Beth is perfect. However, the desolate Beth rejects her compliment and stabs herself with a nail file in her cheek repeatedly, yelling “I’m nothing”. Meanwhile she has turned into Nina’s evil twin. This justifies Leroy’s rebuke that “the only person standing in your way is YOU.”

The movie also features plenty of disturbing, even frightening scenes that result from Nina’s serious psychological problems. She tries so hard to be perfect that she sacrifices everything including her sanity, the loss of which ultimately leads to death. Nina’s obsession makes her peel down the skin of her finger, rage at her mother nearly breaking her hand or turn onto Lily in frenzied jealousy. The gruesome images, most often coupled with suspense, are nevertheless startling and add up to Tchaikovsky’s ecstatic dread.

Black Swan, a softly erotic psychological thriller, is shot from the perspective of the lead character’s fractured mind. Since Nina’s perception of reality is intensely blurred, her sanity doubtful, the whole movie’s sense of what is real and what is merely imagined is consequently rendered unclear. The film requires either multiple viewings or an attentive eye to sort out the hallucinations, nightmares and fantasy. There are many clues that what we see is a badly twisted reality such as when Nina’s reflection in a mirror moves independent of her or when she finds her mother’s paintings talk to her and mock her. Her transformation into the Black Swan is demonstrated by a small barb that grows out of her rash and turns out to be a small black feather. Nina’s wild delusion is completed when her eyes turn into the reddish eyes of a swan and her legs contort into the shape of a swan’s.

Natalie Portman’s performance is simply stunning. Apart from a great physical challenge she had to face (she spent 10 intense months ballet training in preparation for the role), the portrayal of Nina’s transformation and, above all, obsession required a deep emotion and great deal of empathy. Mila Kunis exhibited her capacity for embodying two, perhaps even three characters all in one movie because of the inconsistencies shown in Lily’s character. She is presented as a brazen seductress, a scheming rival and also as a hard-working ballerina that nevertheless lacks Nina’s precision and technique. There are scenes when we think we are observing the real Lily, but then there are so many of those when she is playing somebody whom Nina has constructed in her insane tortured mind. The twisted friendship that develops between them is highly questionable and the true nature of Lily remains a mystery.

Aronofsky considers Black Swan a twin piece to his previous movie The Wrestler, which was originally designed as a single project about a love affair between a wrestler and a ballerina. Eventually Aronofsky separated the two worlds deeming the project “too much for one movie”. He was reported to have compared the two movies: "Wrestling some consider the lowest art—if they would even call it art—and ballet some people consider the highest art. But what was amazing to me was how similar the performers in both of these worlds are. They both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves."

Black Swan captures much of the backstage reality of theatre – the rivalry between dancers, twisted ligaments, broken toe nails, blood and bruises, artistic jealousy, the unattainable desire to become perfect. Aronofsky’s fable about Nina’s transformation is not a fairy tale about a prima ballerina. It aspires to a horror movie that will leave you in wonder what was real and what was a mere product of the psychotic imagination. Black Swan will seduce you, make your stomach turn, take your breath away and render you speechless. Absolutely worth watching. Another Aronofsky’s near-masterpiece.

Zuzana Starovecká

Photos: outnow.ch