“A gem of a movie” is an overused expression, but one that describes Black Swan perfectly. For Darren Aronofsky’s near-masterpiece (as The Washington Post review puts it) is indeed a gem; it has the superficial trappings of an ordered and crystalline structure; it sparkles, glitters, dazzles, and seduces; and when the illusory crystalline structure shatters, it is as hard, jagged, and razor-sharp as a crushed diamond.
Black Swan is a minimalist, visceral exploration of the role of sexuality in the performing arts and its relationship to identity. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is an ambitious young ballerina who strives hard to attain perfection by meticulously working on her technique. Precision and control are her forte. But as Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the artistic director of her company, tells her at a later point in the film, “Perfection isn’t about control. It’s about letting go…Transcendence.” However, Nina’s cloistered existence with Erica (Barbara Hershey), her overprotective mother, ensures that she remains a sexually naive and emotionally incomplete girl-woman—“a rather frigid little girl” as an enraged Beth (Winona Ryder), the retired Prima Ballerina whom Nina idolises, puts it.
Though initially snubbed, an interesting turn of events results in Nina being cast as the swan queen in a new production of Thomas’s version of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake—“a stripped down, visceral” version which requires the same ballerina to take on the personae of both the innocent white swan and the sensual black swan. While Nina’s transformation into the white swan is smooth, lucid, and controlled, her transformation into the black swan is far more painful, literally.
The doppelgänger motif—introduced pretty early on and scattered in myriad forms throughout the film—most tellingly in the profusion of mirrors and mirror images—is personified in Lily (Mila Kunis), the newest member of the company. She immediately grabs Thomas’s attention with her imprecise yet unbridled physical expressiveness and assured sexuality. Driven relentlessly by the uncompromising Thomas, an emotionally fractured and insecure Nina tries hard to emulate Lily—even as she begins to look upon her as a competitor. At home, tension mounts as Erica becomes increasingly menacing in trying to regain control over her increasingly obsessed daughter. A former ballerina herself, who gave up dancing to have Nina, Erica almost detests Nina’s success, ambition, and her desire to break free and dangerously longs for her “sweet girl”.
As the physically and even sexually demanding ballet rehearsals throw Nina’s emotional mindscape into chaos, the metaphors of Swan Lake take on sinister connotations and flow onto the screen, distorting Nina’s sense of reality and identity. She begins seeing things; and with the lines between the literal and the metaphorical blurring, it isn’t just her sense of reality and identity that morph, but her body as well. The movie itself, in keeping with Nina’s transformation, shifts genres, going from competitive ballet to psychological horror, punctuated with brief but intense and frightening moments of gothic excess.
For all the sense of sexual disorientation and confusion, emotional turmoil, and distorted identity that the film so masterfully conveys, the careful construction of the underlying structure is quite apparent. Aronofsky uses the first act of the film to set it up as an edgy, but otherwise conventional ballet movie. He introduces us to the competitive world of New York ballet and fleshes out ballet as an athletic art form which involves both punishing feats of physical exertion and graceful artistry. Exquisite camera-work is used to visually delineate sheer physical, even skeletal and muscular, perfection—graceful napes, sculpted trapezius muscles, strong sinewy legs, and nimble toes. A memorable montage sequence (a so-called Hip-Hop montage) shows ballet shoes being prepared for use on the smooth dance floor. It has to be pointed out here that skilful cinematography and editing are complementary artifices which help maintain the integrity of the film by conveying both obsession—a sense of disturbingly feverish energy—and the magnificence of classical dance.
The second act introduces the conflict—sexual liberation—which leads to the distortion of both Nina and the film. The third act sets in motion the actual transformation itself and is an exploration of identity with Lily, Erica, and Beth as focal points. Nina goes from being a wide-eyed girl in awe of Beth; to being seduced by Lily’s casual sexuality; to trying to break free of the oppressive clutches of Erica; to being terrified of her own potent sexuality; to becoming a seductress—the Black Swan—herself.
One could look at the film as an exploration of feminine ambition. If so, it is left open for the audience to interpret Nina’s painful transformation—or even the mildly ambiguous dénouement—as either a gothic punishment in the vein of a psychological horror film or a triumphant sacrifice as in a more conventional ballet—or for that matter sports—film.