Black Swan begins with a dream. A dancer bathed in the light takes center stage and performs a haunting scene from Swan Lake that serves as a metaphor for the remainder of this Darren Aronofsky film.
The dreamer is Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman), a New York City ballerina. Nina meticulously strives for perfection in her technique and appearance, no matter the cost to her body or her sanity. When artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) plans a re-imagination of Swan Lake, Nina lands the role of the Swan Queen and replaces the aging prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder).
Nina perfectly encompasses the White Swan but it is the imperfect and sensual Black Swan that is harder for her to perform. This is because Nina is very much a child. She wakes in her childhood bedroom and lives under the gaze of her controlling mother (Barbara Hershey). She has never experienced love or sex or freedom. Her life is dictated by the rigorous demands of performance. When she begins a twisted real and unreal relationship with Lily (Mila Kunis), a tattooed dancer in the company, Nina discovers the darkest depths of her being.
Black Swan emphasizes the great lengths ballerinas go to perfect their craft. The female form is explored in all its stages from that of the young ingénue to the aged, wrinkled instructor. No trace of the dancer’s body is left unscathed or is not finely manicured. Aronofsky pays close attention to this detail. Shots of feet, legs, hands, arms, backs, torsos that are bloodied, broken, and beaten down beyond real repair brings a gritty realism to this psychological thriller.
Above all, it is the psychological demands of performance that drive Black Swan. The more Nina delves into the role, the more Thomas uses sex to direct her, the more the competitive nature of the craft eats away at Nina, the more Nina loses control. A constant use of mirrors and windows reflects Nina’s image and her weakening psychological state. At times, her reflection merges with Lily’s as she becomes more like this dancer and is pushed to the brink.
Nina’s battle is not with her mother, Thomas, or the other dancers. It is with her dark alter ego, the vision that haunts her in every mirror after every pirouette. At first she cannot handle or accept her alternative self; this self wants her to experience sex, drugs, frivolity. Her body breaks down; it begins to transform beyond her control.
Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is one of the more visually stunning and thought-provoking films I have seen in recent memory. It is a film drenched in symbolism where the smallest details matter most. Portman and Kunis tackle the physically demanding roles of ballerinas with grace and apparent ease. Their performances are rich and haunting. Nothing more so than the final moments when Nina accepts her darker self as her true self, she becomes alive. She achieves the perfect performance and she breaks free.