Black Swan is a breathtaking, intense, horrifying and beautiful cinematic essay on obsession, maturity and the fine line between reality and fantasy, and it’s well worth seeing, regardless of whether you’re interested in ballet.
Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a dancer in a Manhattan-based ballet troupe who has mastered the technical requirements of ballet but lacks the passion, sensuousness and soul to be an outstanding prima ballerina. The troupe artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) announces their next performance will be Swan Lake, but he’s going to make it edgier, and the lead will need to play both the white swan, an embodiment of all that is sweet, pure and youthful, and the black swan, the dark alter ego, the sexual, aggressive counterpoint to the white swan.
Nina is cast for this role, a role that’ll be the pinnacle of her dancing career, but the pressure of performing, the expectations of her obsessive, controlling mother Erica (a superb Barbara Hershey), making sure that the antithetical Lily (Mila Kunis) doesn’t steal her part, and the challenge of finding the “black swan” within her innocent, childlike personality tear Nina apart, and it’s that descent into madness that’s the heart of the film.
One of the things I really enjoyed about Inception (another film in the running for Best Picture) was that what we saw on screen wasn’t always what was actually happening in the story. Seeing the delusions, fears, daydreams and hallucinations of characters is far more powerful, and in Black Swan, there are frequent scenes where the viewer is left asking whether it really transpired or was symptomatic of Nina’s gradual loss of her grip on reality.
The film that Black Swan most reminds me of, however, was the 1984 French film Carmen, directed by Francesco Rosi. Carmen focuses on an opera company that gets caught up in the interpersonal complexities of the love triangle in the Bizet opera, even as they rehearse the opera itself.
Both films share an obvious parallel between the story that the troupe is rehearsing and the performers themselves. Nina is the white swan, with a child-like life, including a domineering mother who refuses to let her grow up and a bedroom full of stuffed animals. Lily is the black swan, dark, sultry, sexual, uninhibited, and with ambiguous intentions and motivations.
Lily is also the temptress, encouraging Nina to rebel against her mother and hook up with men, try recreational drugs and get drunk. It’s telling that after they go to a nightclub and meet up with some guys, however, Nina’s fantasy of how the evening ends has her making love to Lily, not one of the men. I’ll say this: Portman and Kunis making love was one of the sexiest scenes I’ve seen this year, despite how simultaneously creepy it was.
Ultimately, Black Swan isn’t about ballet; it’s about obsession and perfection; it’s about being so focused on a goal that everything else in life either helps achieve that goal or is a waste and needs to be ignored or ejected. Nina’s descent into madness is as inevitable as it is painful — and alarming — to watch, and Portman’s performance is superb. The film is a reminder of why balance in life is critical, of how every truly good person is a careful balance of black and white, of good and evil. It’s also one of the best movies of the year.