Black Swan is not a subtle film. This is both its triumph and its downfall. It is an intense character study very similar to director Darren Aronofsky’s previous effort, The Wrestler. In fact, I believe they actually started life (very early on) as one movie, which isn’t surprising as they are both studies of people who push their bodies to the limit.
If the symbolism wasn’t too prevalent to ignore, you could see this film purely about the struggle with beauty at the cost of pain. Ballet is a beautiful art, and the dancers are pushed to the extreme in order to get to the top. We see the dancers pulled, pushed, cracked, and felled. We hear the sounds they make just from getting up in the morning. We see what they don’t eat, to try to keep their weight down. We see how they struggle even with just their shoes, making them so pointe work is even a tiny bit more bearable. Their careers go pretty quickly, because the body can only endure so much. For Natalie Portman’s character, Nina, her mind is also being pushed to the limit.
Black Swan is also the portrait of a mental breakdown. The entire film is shown through the mind of Nina. She is compelled to scratch and pick at herself to the point of bleeding, the same way her mother (a former dancer who never made it to stardom) picks and scratches at her technique and life. The apartment they share feels like a cell, where every stimulus in the environment is controlled by her mother. Her mother keeps her in a childlike state of dependence, and the bedroom reflects it.
The beginning of the new ballet season brings a new version of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, and the challenge for Nina of getting cast as the Swan Queen and the mirror role of the evil twin character, the Black Swan. Thomas, the director, has no doubt that Nina can fully perform the technical work for both parts, but the Black Swan requires a more emotional and lose performance, which Nina struggles with. Thomas tries to force himself onto her, but her violent rebuke of him shows that she has the emotion required for the Black Swan part as well.
The film also uses the structure of the ballet itself, paralleling Nina’s struggle within herself with the struggle of the Swan Queen in the ballet. In the story, the Swan Queen requires the love of a prince to break the spell. However, the prince is seduced by an evil twin or lookalike, and the Queen kills herself out of despair. Nina’s dark side begins seducing herself, and she begins to lose more and more control over it. Her hallucinations begin to intensify and Nina starts to lose a grip on reality. The parallels are so strong and so well done that it makes the end of the movie literally, “Perfect.”
I was completely absorbed in every frame of this movie, and it’s definitely one of the best movies of the year. I really enjoy good use of parallel structures in fiction, and this delivers on that count. However, this is also a slight drawback for the film. As I said, it’s not a subtle venture, and the film really hits you over the head with some of the symbolism. Nina’s bedroom, she always dresses in white, her strict discipline, while her wild-child rival, Lily, dresses in black, they’re are mirrors in every scene, etc. She even has a dream with the prologue of the ballet! It sometimes feels a little much, but I imagine this will be a great intro to film class because there is so much subtext bubbling over onto the surface.
Overall, Black Swan definitely earns it’s reputation as a Best of the Year contender, and Natalie Portman truly gives an Oscar-worthy performance.