“We’re doing Swan Lake,” explains Thomas, the director of a prestigious ballet production, “I know it’s been done before but this will be stripped down. Visceral.”
Thomas’ description aptly fits both the stylistic approach to his production and to Black Swan itself. It tells the story of Nina Sayers, a young, sexually immature ballet dancer who is cast in the starring role of a new Swan Lake production. When she learns of the news that she has been cast in the lead role, she is moved to tears. Ballet is her whole life and also that of her mother’s, who we learn was a dedicated performer but one who never got her big break. This is Nina’s big break.
Nina is a perfectionist and what better craft for a perfectionist than ballet with its gruelling physical demands and hyper-competitive environment where dozens of girls compete for a single coveted spot.
That starring role is made available when Beth, the former Swan Queen and Thomas’ ‘Little Princess’ reaches her use-by date and is unceremoniously dumped from the production. It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see that she clung to her spot by offering her body to the predatory Thomas who has a reputation for having affairs with his dancers. Thomas is clearly used to using his authority to mentally dominate his women. He has a tendency to grab the faces of the women he speaks to and his apartment has a gigantic rorschach ink blot on the wall. This is a man who enjoys mindfucking his women as much as he does physically.
Nina however is the virginal White Swan who doesn’t know how to handle Thomas’ bold advances. It is not a lifelong dedication to ballet that has made her this way however. Nina lives at home with her mother Erica who also appears to be her only social outlet outside of ballet. Something feels ‘off’ about their relationship. Erica clearly imposes Nina’s innocence on her. She talks to Nina as if she were a child. She dresses Nina. Her bedroom is decorated as a child’s room with stuffed animals. When Nina masturbates at the instruction of Thomas, her sexual pleasure becomes shattered by a mental image of her mother watching her. Black Swan appears to suggest that Nina has been sexually abused by Erica.
In rehearsals for the opening night, Nina is continually chastised by Thomas for her two dimensional performance. She has mastered the tender and elegant routines of the White Swan but the role also calls for her to be convincing as the seductive and devilish Black Swan. How can Nina hope to find her sexual awakening required to be convincing in the role?
Her catalyst is a new dancer on the production named Lily, played by Mila Kunis. Lily is the sexually liberated devil-may-care alter ego that Nina struggles to be. She is effortlessly attractive to men and carries herself with a confidence that Lily cannot hope to match. In ballet, raw talent has gotten Nina so far and yet she is terrified that Lily, who becomes her understudy, will sweep the role away from her with her sexual prowess. Although a rival, Nina can’t help but to be drawn to Lily who embodies qualities that she finds herself lacking.
Gradually Nina becomes increasingly paranoid and unstable. She veers wildly between her three beacons of influence: Her mother Erica, her mentor Thomas and her rival Lily. Aronofsky’s direction uses tight claustrophobic camera work, a jarring orchestral score and flashing hallucinogenic imagery to put the audience on edge, to make them as frazzled as Nina becomes. The line between reality and Nina’s imagination begins to blur.
The final act, when Nina takes centre stage in the Swan Lake performance, offers a heady, melodramatic and intense conclusion.
Black Swan is an excellent follow up to Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and it clearly shares some thematic links between its two leads who are so driven by their passion that it drives them to self-destruction. In fact, in Aronofsky’s entire catalogue of films, there seems to be an ever present blur between fantasy and reality. I’m not sure Black Swan is necessarily his best work but regardless it is a fantastic mindbending film.