The film is told from Nina’s point of view. At first, everything in the film seems normal. But as time goes on, Nina is put under immense amounts of pressure by Thomas, her director, and her frighteningly involved mother. She begins to see things that are not necessarily there. At times these involve imagery from the story of Swan Lake, like a monster, which she dances with. Other times, Nina sees those around her doing things to try to rob her of glory. This includes the ruthlessness of Lily. Or does it? It becomes harder and harder to tell what is real and what isn’t as Nina moves closer to her transformation, as the two sides of her – the Black Swan and the White Swan – begin to converge.
Darren Aronofsky’s follow up to The Wrestler is Black Swan, an unrelenting, absolutely enthralling, psychological horror film about ballet. Yes, you read that correctly.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a committed ballerina in a dance company in New York. She has spent years waiting for her chance. The director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), decides to put on Swan Lake, but with a new take: one dancer will play both the White Swan and the Black Swan. This means starting fresh, which means getting rid of the established star, Beth (Winona Ryder, with a performance completely full of venom), and casting a new star. Nina arises as the favorite for the part, but that soon becomes threatened by a newcomer, Lily (Mila Kunis). The stress of competition and the overbearing pressure of her mother (Barbara Hershey) begins to cause Nina to unravel is frightening ways.
Nina is the White Swan. She is pristine. Her movements are precise and she is constantly striving for perfection. Her attitude as a dancer is her attitude as a person. She is timid and naïve. She has to keep her desires under control because she has to be perfect. However, if she wants to star in the show, she needs to find the darker side of herself, the Black Swan. This is where Lily comes in. Lily serves as Nina’s example – she is the Black Swan. She is free from the desire of perfection. She follows her desires wherever it takes her. It is when she drags Nina along with her that Nina begins to find the Black Swan within herself.
Natalie Portman is incredible in this film. She is so fragile as Nina. It is amazing the level of innocence she is able to convey by the way she moves, the way she has a hard time keeping eye contact, the way she shrugs her shoulders. It feels like she is made out of porcelain and could shatter into a million pieces if not handled with care. As incredible as this portrayal is, the most remarkable part of her performance is her transformation. As she discovers the Black Swan within herself, that softness disappears and a hard edge emerges. It is near jaw dropping to see what was once a timid girl throw aside people that stand in her way and take what belongs to her. It’s a fascinating character and an incredible performance. Portman is perfect in this role.
Mila Kunis is fascinating to watch as Lily. It’s never clear what her motives are. Is she a friend or a foe? Kunis takes to both with ease and stretches herself beyond the carefree spirit she enters the story as. She is kind in one moment and ruthless in the next. She is ally and adversary. A lot of this is a consequence of the point of view of the film.
This duality is reflected in the production design in intriguing ways. In Nina’s room, amidst all the white stuffed animals that help build her innocence, there is a single black swan. In almost every scene, there is a mirror: a perfect symbol of duality. The mirrors appear in various styles and numbers, constantly fragmenting the image of Nina in different ways, representing her fragmented personality that she is trying to reconcile.
Costumes also help a great deal in exploring Nina’s duality. Nina is constantly dressed in white. Those that apply pressure to her are dressed in black: her mother, Thomas, and, of course, Lily, the embodiment of the Black Swan. In a key turning point of Nina’s character, she goes out with Lily to a bar. She’s got on a white tank top and Lily has on black tank top. Lily gives her a black tank top to change into, but she doesn’t. Nina keeps on her white one and puts the black one on over it. She then throws on a gray sweater, gray being the combination of white and black. It’s a detail that shows the two halves of her personality and the need to reconcile and unite them. And it’s done with tank tops and a sweater. This is the level of detail Darren Aronofsky crafts in this film.
Aronofsky is a director that constantly brings ritual and detail into his films. He takes the time to learn what makes up an experience. In this film, he shows the ritual of preparing the ballet slippers: stripping the inside and scoring the soles. He notices and presents the detail of dancers cracking their bones. It’s this level of specificity that gives his film authenticity, as well as its brutality.
This is a violent film. Aronofsky strives to show how painful it is to be a ballet dancer. And he succeeds. He doesn’t just show the strained muscles and sweat, he shows the blood from wounds that won’t heal because the dancer keeps dancing despite the pain. He shows the emotional damage ballet can do to a dancer as they search for perfection in their discipline. Aronofsky is relentless is his portrayal of the harshness of this world. It makes for incredibly tense film that is difficult to watch, yet at the same time thrilling.
Black Swan is a fantastic piece of cinema. It is thrilling, constantly keeps the audience off balance and asking questions, tragic, and, ultimately, transcendent and beautiful. Every moment of it is gripping. While this is Aronofsky’s finest film to date, it is by no means his swan song.