"The Black Swan" by Darren Aronofsky is an intense melodramatic psychological thriller, describing the arduous world of ballet, where nothing is ever good enough- perfection is an agreed, yet coveted illusion.
The movie centers around a soft-spoken ballerina Nina(played by Natalie Portman) working in a fictitious New York ballet company, where she has pursued her dream of a lead role for years. Despite being 28, she looks and lives the part of a child, living with her over-bearing mother in a cell-like cramped apartment. She sleeps in a little girl´s pink “princess room” full of stuffed animals and a music box by her bed, playing Tchaikovsky´s “Swan Lake”.
Ballet is a world of unthinkable self-discipline: years of rigorous exercises and sacrifices amidst constant criticism and fears of physical injuries ending it all in a second. Training takes precedence over everything else and normal life outside of the art form is neglected. The hard work is constantly emphasized for the film´s audience: the crackled sounds of the feet, heavy breathing, sweat and tears are showed and heard in excessive detail. Nina´s life is and has been about ballet- there is little room for her own wishes, as she is aiming for what her mother failed to accomplish after getting pregnant with her- being a star ballerina.
The ballet company´s authoritarian art director Thomas (played by the magnificent Vincent Cassel) announces the season´s new project: “Swan Lake” with a new raw edge, “visceral and real”. Thomas treats the dancers as amusing chess pieces; he carelessly tosses aside the older prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder) for some new blood to bring in audience. It is obvious that he has slept with Beth, and the ease he exercises in touching and harassing the young dancers suggests that his position of power has corrupted him of guilt.
When Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer from San Francisco, arrives to the company, Nina becomes fascinated by her. Lily is everything Nina is not: bold, loud, experienced in life and unapologetic. Nina fears her, covets her strength and fantasizes about her. At times the sexual fantasies suggest she might be homosexual. Impresario Thomas suggests she should dance more like Lily; not with just technique but with a feeling. Nina can master the “White Swan” but not the “Black Swan” of the story. Otherwise the star role would be automatically hers. This presents a dilemma: how to remain in her comfortable virginal role of a child imposed by her mother, yet please the demands of the art (Thomas)?
Tchaikovsky’s “The Swan Lake” originates from Russian folk tales and depicts the story of a princess (Odette) turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer. By day, she is a swan and nighttime she morphs back into a beautiful woman. Only true love can rescue her from turning permanently into swan form. Young prince Siegfried catches a glimpse of the princess and immediately falls in love. Later the sorcerer tricks him, however, by presenting his own evil daughter Odile to the prince, and as Odile resembles strikingly Odette, the prince falls for her. Later he realizes his mistake, but it is too late, he is forced to marry the evil Odile. Heartbroken Odette jumps into the lake.
Nina is determined and dedicated to her craft, and therefore begins to pursue “the darker side” her director is asking her to show in dancing. She plays and experiments with drugs, alcohol and flirting while on a night out with Lily. While Thomas tries to force himself on her, she bits him. Surprised, Thomas gives her the main role of the “Swan Lake”. Everything is not well, though. The pressure to change and emerge from her safe cocoon of a “childwoman” result in evil twins and doppelgängers in the mirrors, subways, paintings and shadows. As Nina strives for perfection in her dancing, her mental stability (if there ever was any) begins to falter.
While striving for perfection and disciplining her body, Nina is constantly aware and scared of the limits. Wounds, rashes and blood scare her, the example of Beth, former prima ballerina replaced for being old becomes a source of horror in her visions. After a lifetime dedicated for the pursuit of perfection in ballet, nothing is left for Beth, and she attempts suicide. The sight of Beth on a hospital bed immobile and badly injured is horrific- an open wound, an abjection which must be denied.
The incestuous relationship Nina shares with her mother does not leave room for adulthood or emerging sexuality. Her virginal and fragile self begins to pave way for the “Black Swan”, an aggressive and sensual woman which threatens the status quo. Signs of self-harm are visible and audible from the start. Nina vomits, cuts and scratches herself. Aronofsky does not make the metamorphosis seem easy, as it never is. Some of the cuts on her body seem to emerge on their own and disappear. It is a metonymy of the cut that goes deeper, within her mind. It cannot be erased or concealed, at least not for long.
As the opening night approaches, the pressure to master her role as the “Swan queen” intensifies. The fears of replacement grow, evil mirror twin torments Nina and Thomas turns into something else than a plain art director. He becomes the Father, who calls her “her little princess”; the same words her mother has used of her. The quest for perfection and control of dual roles, both as “White swan” and “ Black Swan” weigh on her sanity. As Nina finally succeeds to drive the Mother out of her space(room) and reclaim her independence, she has a vision of her legs breaking under her. The traumatic experience carries on to the stage, as she hallucinates stabbing her evil twin/Lily. The removal of the Other is impossible without hurting the First. At the end of the show, she realizes having hurt herself, and the bleeding wound becomes visible to everyone.