I don’t know all that goes on in ballet. I’m sure some dancers can have a better knowledge of all that happens, like rehearsals and backstage secrets. Black Swan is the story of an insecure dancer who receives the role of a lifetime in Swan Lake and works to achieve it, despite what possible tragedies lay ahead.
We first meet Nina Sayers: a young insecure aspiring dancer of a New York ballet company. Her mother, who’s a failed dancer and now an amateur artist, loves Nina and supports her but is very controlling of her. One important note: Nina has many psychotic symptoms like delusions and colorful hallucinations. She also purges herself at times. The director Thomas Leroy announces he’s putting a new twist on the production of Swan Lake. In this production, a virginal pure girl is trapped in the body of a swan only love can free. She falls for a prince but her evil twin, the Black Swan, tricks him and seduces him. Devastated, the white swan jumps off a cliff and find freedom in death. In this production, they’re looking for a new dancer that can play both swans.
There are auditions for this and there is a lot of rivalry between the girls. For so long, they all aspired to replace Beth McIntyre who has been the ensemble’s top dancer for so many years. Beth herself is devastated by the news and wrecks her dressing room in the process. During practice Thomas points to Nina that she’s perfect in the technical aspect in her dancing but lacks grace, and points to a dancer named Lily as an example of grace. The results are then announced that Nina is cast as the swan.
This should make Nina happy but is given harsh words from a drunken Beth at a benefit gala where Thomas promotes Nina. Days later, Beth attempts suicide by throwing herself into a car. Thomas tries to get Nina to loosen up for her role as the Black Swan. He even kisses her with power and recommends masturbating. Nina sees a suspicious rash coming on her shoulders. She even suspects Lily, who’s cast as her understudy, is trying to take her role away from her.
One night Lily arrives at Nina’s door and takes her for a night on the town. She meets Lily’s gay friends and takes drugs Lily offers her. The two then have sex at Nina’s house after an enraged argument with her mother. Waking up alone, she arrives at the rehearsals with Lily standing in as the Swan Queen. Furious with Lily not waking her upon, Nina argues only to learn sleeping with Lily was just a drug-induced illusion.
The night before opening, Nina rehearses late and experiences more delusions like lily and Thomas having sex. She visits Beth in the hospital only to see Beth stab her face with a nail file. Upon returning home, she sees her mother’s paintings mocking her, pulls a black feather from the rash on her back, her eyes turn into swan eyes and her legs contort into swan legs. Upon steadying herself, she falls and knocks herself unconscious.
The morning of the opening performance, she wakes up to find out her mother locked her in her room and let the company know she can’t make it because she’s not well. Nina forces her way out violently and arrives at the company to prepare for the White Swan. The first act goes well until Nina is distracted by another image and a lights glare; the Prince drops her during an overhead lift. Nina returns to the dressing room to see Lily dressing as the Black Swan. Lily then turns into Nina whom Nina fights and even stabs with a broken mirror. Nina then hides Lily’s bloody body in the closet. Nina returns to the stage as the Black Swan. It is during her performance that the rash on her back sprouts black swan feathers and becomes wings as she dances flawlessly and gracefully. The audience gives her a standing ovation and she kisses Thomas with power.
Back in her dressing room, Lily comes in to congratulate her. She then learns she never fought Lily but the stabbing from the mirror glass was not only real, but she stabbed herself as the White Swan. For the final act, Nina dances gracefully as the White Swan. At the end where the Swan is to jump to her death off the cliff, Nina sees her mother in the audience crying. Nina jumps and the audience erupts in applause. The cast, especially Lily, is horrified to see blood from Nina’s stab wound but Nina lays dying and happy that she everything she could to achieve the perfect performance.
Despite it showing some truths about the ballet world, ballet is not what Black Swan is mostly about. Nor is it about the dark truths of the ballet world. It’s mostly about life imitating art as the director gives a new twist to Swan Lake and it imitates Nina’s own life from her trying to impress Thomas to loosening herself with Lily to dying in order to free herself from her mother. It’s about delusions and it either interfering with reality or sending a message. It’s about whether it’s better to fade down or end on top. It’s about people in the arts world that have either this freeness or extremeness about them. It’s also about dying for one’s art. All these themes are present in Black Swan which is what makes it unique, frightening and even beautiful.
The biggest highlight of the movie was the acting and the dancing of Natalie Portman. This was a role of a lifetime and Natalie mastered it. Also excellent was Mila Kunis as the loose, confident Lily. Barbara Hershey, who played the mother, did a lot with what little screen time she had. Darren Aronofsky did an excellent job in directing this in what is only his fifth feature. His previous work The Wrestler showed that bigger things was going to come from him and they have. The trio of scriptwriters also did an excellent job in writing a clever but haunting script. This has to be one of the best films about dance ever made.
Black Swan has been a darling of film critics and awards juries. Black Swan has also done well at the box office so it’s nice to see it’s also succeeding commercially. Black Swan may confuse some at first but one would understand it more as the film progresses. I don’t know if it will win Best Picture but it is surely deserving of the Oscar and all of its nominations. Definitely worth seeing.