There are things we are made to fear – monsters, war, the dark, sin, blood, the devil, psychosis… and then there’s ballerinas. When I first heard that Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Pi, The Wrestler) would be taking on an adapted story by Andrés Heinz about a dance company preparing for the opening of the famous Russian ballet ‘Swan Lake’, it goes without saying that I was intrigued. Aronofsky has a true understanding of the human psyche, especially some of the more disturbing – paranoia played a central role in the critically-acclaimed Pi (2008). When watching Black Swan for the first time, I had no idea what kind of disturbing world the audience would be thrown right in the middle of… and the merciless manner in which it’s done. Anyone who’s seen the frighteningly mind-bending final fifteen minutes of Requiem for a Dream (2000) might ask why anybody would expect even the least bit of reserve when it comes to Black Swan… but I mean, it’s just ballet, right?
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a talented, young ballet dancer in New York dedicating nearly her entire existence to the craft, hoping to work under the direction of company instructor Vincent Cassel (Thomas Leroy) on his latest adaptation of Swan Lake. A natural ballerina, obsessed with perfect form, Nina should be the obvious choice after the untimely retirement of prima ballerina Beth Macintyre (Wynona Ryder). But Nina, while portraying the innocence of the white swan beautifully, she has a difficult time understanding the darker, sensual side of the black swan. And she soon sees competition in the newest dancer to the company, Lily (Mila Kunis), who threatens her place as the obvious choice for the Swan Queen. After some uncomfortable attempts to prove her emotional and interpretive versatility, she’s awarded the role of her career – much to the adoration of her equally-obsessed, retired ballerina mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey).
It’s only after she’s escalated to this level of bragging rights that Nina notices the stares coming from other dancers… and someone may be following her. Beyond the stress of being alienated by her fellow dancers, she must also deal with the constant advances of her slimy, French instructor, who is either obsessed with her sexually or obsessed with the idea of opening her up enough emotionally to handle the complexities of the Swan Queen. And then there’s feeling of being trapped in her own home by an overbearing mother who insists on living vicariously through Nina’s latest accomplishment. Despite all personal and emotional obstacles, her only focus is perfection – but there’s something imperfect about that type of acute focus.
Seeing that her fellow dancer is in desperate need of letting go of her stress, Lily invites Nina out for drinks and some fun, which she does reluctantly… and later regrets as she finds that Lily lives in a completely different world; one without rules or a sense of order. Something interesting happens after living through these experiences – she finally starts to give in to certain temptations for the sake of exploring sides of herself she’s never known before. But she’s still being watched so closely by everyone, being taunted, and maybe even followed. Her own body seems to be attacking her chances of giving the best possible performance on stage. This paranoia associated with trying to perfectly embody the duality of the Swan Queen nearly becomes too much for her to handle by the time opening night finally arrives. Nina’s obsession with perfection has warped her sense of reality… and the results are nothing shy of a truly unforgettable ballet performance of Swan Lake.
Everything about this film is exceptional. There’s a duality in the performances given by every actor that has you questioning the intentions of their characters. In a way, all of these characters embody both some sense of beauty as well one of cruelty. One can’t help but be absolutely disgusted with instructor Vincent, disturbed by mommy Erica Sayers and curious about the free-spirited Lily.
Through the use of medium and close-range photography and long tracking shots, the viewer is literally taken along Nina’s journey, exposing the viewer to her gradual decline into a state of paranoia. Portman does an amazing job of carrying nearly the entire film on her own. Interactions with other characters and the occasional dance scene break the uncomfortable feeling that we may be slipping into Nina’s dark world; and a sense of self-preservation is the only thing keeping us from doing so. The thing is, with the sense of realism in this film, one finds themselves struggling to remember just what’s real.
More info: Black Swan on IMDB