At what price perfection? Body? Mind? Soul?
That question does bad things to Nina Sayers in Black Swan. It gnaws at her. Pursues her. Taunts her. Tempts her. It nibbles away at her sanity and even at her flesh. And all over something as seemingly innocent as playing the role of a swan in a ballet.
Actually, two swans. And therein lies the problem.
Nina has toiled for years at a New York City ballet company. When the troupe's famous director, Thomas Leroy, decides his prima ballerina is too old to play the lead in his new production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, Nina sees her opportunity.
The lead requires a dancer who can inhabit the costumes and psyches of two radically different characters: the innocent, fragile White Swan and the seductive, forceful Black Swan. Nina's childlike naiveté (she lives at home with her smothering mother and sleeps in a pink, stuffed animal-filled room more suitable for an 8-year-old than a 28-year-old) combined with technical brilliance born of relentless training makes her a perfect candidate for the White Swan. But—according to Thomas—her sexual frigidity undermines her capacity to become the Black Swan. That's a role much better suited to newcomer Lily, who's everything Nina isn't. Lily is passionate, not precise. Reckless, not careful. Impulsive, not hesitant.
Though Nina gets the nod for the ballet's lead, Lily is never far away—whether as a confidant, a rival, a provocateur, a lover or a kind of lurking doppelgänger, Nina's never quite sure.
Slowly, day by grueling day, the shadows cast by the Black Swan envelop the new prima ballerina's soul. And as Swan Lake's opening day draws ever closer, her grip on sanity grows ever more tenuous.
[Note: The following sections contain plot spoilers.]
Passing reference is made to the myth behind Swan Lake, in which an evil magician curses a princess, transforming her into a swan. The spell must be broken by a prince who loves her, but he gets seduced by the Black Swan. The White Swan, heartbroken, leaps to her death. Thomas says of her suicide, "In death she finds freedom."
Thomas repeatedly tries to shame Nina into acting more seductively by calling her "frigid" in front of others. Obscenely turning the primary purpose of dancing into a sexual one, he asks her dance partner, "Honestly, would you f‑‑‑ that girl?" When he first forces a kiss on her, Nina bites and bloodies Thomas' lip. But she later defends his actions and his "brilliance," prompting Lily to tease her about having a crush on him. After a practice, Thomas kisses Nina and graphically gropes her (clothed) breasts and crotch until she begins to respond.
Thomas invites Nina to his home where he asks if she's a virgin and whether she enjoys sex. He suggests that she go home and "touch herself" to bring out her more primal nature onstage. Nina obeys. Two scenes, one in bed and one in the bathtub, show her masturbating. The former scene is drawn out and explicit as Nina, in her underwear, writhes and gropes—until she sees, to her horror, that her mother has fallen asleep in a chair in her room.
In a drug-induced frenzy, Nina dances provocatively with several men, then imagines Lily performing oral sex on her. The sexual encounter plays out as if it was real, with clothing getting stripped off and very, very little of the sex act being left to the imagination—or out of the frame.
In addition to the not quite full nudity shown in that scene, we see Nina in her panties, covering her breasts with her arms. She wears skimpy pajamas. On a subway, Nina encounters an elderly man who gestures at her crudely with his tongue and frantically stimulates his crotch with his hand. A female dancer caresses a male dancer's crotch. Dancers of both genders wear skintight leotards, and the camera makes sure to notice all of their curves. In the locker room, women are seen in their underwear. Twice, the camera watches Lily remove her panties from under her skirt and put them in her purse.
It's implied that Thomas had a longstanding sexual relationship with the outgoing ballerina Beth—an insinuation that's confirmed when she drunkenly asks if Nina had to perform oral sex on him to win the lead. Nina sees (or imagines) Thomas passionately kissing and groping Lily. Quips are made about gay lovers and lesbian fantasies.
Nina's increasing neuroses are manifested in a bizarre, unconscious kind of self-mutilation. Repeatedly she picks at the skin around her fingernails and scratches her back viciously. She has awful hallucinations in which she sees herself tearing bloody strips of skin away from her fingers.
It's important to note that Nina's self-injury, conscious or not, is closely linked to her fears that her dance performance isn't perfect. And it culminates with her fatally stabbing herself with a large shard of glass. In her mind, though, it plays out as her killing Lily. She throws the other woman into a mirror and then stabs her with the broken glass, dragging her body into a closet and using a towel to keep blood from seeping beneath the door. Nina bleeds to death just as her character, the White Swan, commits suicide at the end of the ballet.
Twice, Nina visits Beth in the hospital. The former ballerina has apparently tried to kill herself by throwing herself in front of a car (offscreen). During Nina's first visit, she looks under Beth's hospital covers and sees horrible stitched gashes, bruises and braces on her legs. The second visit has Beth savagely jamming a sharp nail file deep into her own cheeks and face. Horrified, Nina flees, only to find that she has the nail file in her hand.
Nina brutally slams a door on her mother's hand. And her hallucinations include watching herself metamorphosing into a swan: Her neck elongates, goose bumps on her arms erupt into actual feathers, she pulls bloody barbs from her back, etc.
Several camera shots focus on Nina's battered feet. We watch as she attends to black, broken and bleeding toenails. (The overall effect depicts ballet as an art form that requires something like self-torture and mutilation in order to perform it.)
Drug and Alcohol Content
Lily and Nina's club-hopping escapades include drinking and Lily popping a pill before emptying another pill's contents into Nina's drink. Nina is reluctant at first, but eventually downs the chemical combo. The unnamed drug seems to unleash Nina's heretofore unexpressed wild side and induce even more hallucinations than she's already been having.
At a celebration announcing Nina as the new prima ballerina, guests drink champagne. Beth is drunk and confronts Thomas. Lily smokes a cigarette, and she offers Nina one too.
Other Negative Elements
Nina's mother, Erica, is a former dancer living vicariously through her daughter. Even though Erica tends to Nina's every need, it's clear their relationship has crossed from affection to cloying codependency. Erica can no more let Nina grow up than Nina can live without her. In one scene, Erica buys a cake to celebrate Nina securing the lead. When Nina is hesitant to eat (because she's watching her weight so zealously), Mom manipulatively threatens to throw the whole cake in the garbage.
We repeatedly see Nina vomit, usually after practice. It's a behavior motivated by either her desire to lose weight or the nervousness and stress that consume her. Or both. And that leads us to this: The ballet world takes a beating here. And there's little to offset the negative portrayal. Cutthroat competition, gruesome physical sacrifice and sexual politics are all supposedly part of the "beauty."
Despite the praise Natalie Portman has won for her technically demanding portrayal of Nina Sayers, this vision of misguided perfection collapses under a host of strains.
"I just want to be perfect," Nina tearfully tells her ballet director.
And what movie director Darren Aronofsky gives us here is an eerie glimpse into the cost of such a longing. Veering from psychological thriller territory into the land of full-on horror, Aronofsky skillfully—and disturbingly—shows how one woman's innate desire to be flawless, when coupled with mental instability and crippling insecurity, and encouraged by a deeply manipulative mother and an equally manipulative ballet director, ultimately ends her life.
In the production notes for Black Swan, Aronofsky talks about the parallels between this story and the one he told in his last film, 2008's The Wrestler. "Some people call wrestling the lowest of art forms, and some call ballet the highest of art forms, yet there is something elementally the same. Mickey Rourke as a wrestler was going through something very similar to Natalie Portman as a ballerina," Aronofsky says. "They're both artists who use their bodies to express themselves and they're both threatened by physical injury, because their bodies are the only tool they have for expression. What was interesting for me was to find these two connected stories in what might appear to be unconnected worlds."
I reviewed The Wrestler, and I can agree with Aronofsky's comparison on one level: Both of these films include images of wince-inducing self-sacrifice—even self-mutilation at times—as a byproduct of these performers' pursuit of perfection. Further, both films' lingering, obsessive looks at explicit sexual imagery and situations seem to say that sexual dysfunction is also a byproduct.
That said, Black Swan pirouettes in an altogether different direction than The Wrestler when it comes to tone and takeaway. The Wrestler appropriates graphic images—both violent and sexual—in the service of a story that at least lurches toward redemption. With Black Swan, Aronofsky has traded anything even remotely approximating recovery or hope for the fast-approaching footsteps of insanity and horror.