Darren Aronofsky is an unparalleled director, whose five feature films are engrossing and epic, whether personal (The Wrestler), universal (The Fountain), or a masterful combination of the two (Requiem for a Dream). His latest effort, Black Swan, is no different.
The film follows a production of the “Swan Lake” ballet, while retelling the ballet’s own plot as a psychological thriller. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is the prima ballerina in Swan Lake, taking the dual role of the White Swan and Black Swan. Nina is the infantilized daughter of an overbearing, obsessive former dancer (Barbara Hersey, who nails the Mommie Dearest role of Erica Sayers). Vincent Cassel plays Thomas Leroy, the manipulative, twisted and all-powerful director of Swan Lake in a role that seems written expressly for him. Mila Kunis is Lily, the dancer that is everything Nina isn’t: free-spirited, sexual and seductive.
Early on, images of mirrors and reflections redflag the major themes of the film: sense of self and dualities of identity. The imagery isn’t subtle; in the first five minutes of the film, I started the countdown until a mirror was broken (which, indeed, occurs at a pivotal moment in the final act). The same goes for the white swan / black swan symbolism, with Lily as Nina’s doppleganger.
Nina, poised and pure, is perfect for the White Swan. Predictably, she struggles with both the demands of the role of the Black Swan, and with the side of her personality that allows her to embody the role. She lives under the thumb of her mother, and her mental and emotional development is arrested. Her sense of self is tied up in being the perfect dancer, having total control of her movement. Similarly, her apparent anorexia has more to do with control than body image (true of many real life sufferers of the disorder). But as Thomas attempts to teach her, “perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go.”
It’s the letting go, and the embrace of her dark side, that is at the heart of the film. Nina sees herself in Lily, and as her paranoia and delusions grow, she projects onto Lily those things she cannot do or be by herself. Coming to terms with her sexuality, there are two scenes of masturbation, one literal and one figurative. The first begins as a suggestion by Thomas, and at the start it feels exploitative and not at all sexual, as if we’re watching this girl discover her body for the first time. But midway through, Nina’s dark side takes over and the tone changes to raunchy (even if the jarring end of the scene is a bit predictable). Later on in the film, the much-hyped lesbian scene is nothing more than sex with self – Lily is only there as fantasy, as Nina acting out.
This is no more true than in the film’s final sequence, when Nina, spiralling out of control and further away from reality, imagines a physical confrontation with Lily. At last, I got my broken mirror, as Nina’s fragile sense of self finally (and literally) shatters. She stabs herself/Lily, taking her own life in a twisted act of control over her demons. If Nina dies, there are no more tears, no more broken toes, no more flaws: in a word, perfection.
Throughout the film, Nina has visions of literally becoming the black swan, and these scenes are mixed in their effectiveness. The manifestations are more chilling at the start, as a rash or a foreign fragment under the skin. But by the time we get to legs breaking backwards, funhouse mirror tattoos, and feathers covering her entire body, it’s a bit extreme to take seriously. After watching the (very real) bodily trauma of Nina’s physical therapy, these horrific elements are too absurd to resonate.
Still, Aronofsky crafts a psychological thriller on par with and reminiscent of Pi. Both are stories of protagonists who cannot bear the weight of their gifts and curses, and choose drastic means to alleviate their anguish. Along with Pi, Black Swan reminds me of classics like de Palma’s Sisters and Bergmann’s Persona for its meditation on dualities of self. This ground is so well-tilled because of how fertile it is, which excuses some of the heavy-handed symbolism that Aronofsky uses to tell a familiar story.