Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky, is one of those interesting films that you want to watch again. It starts out with Nina Sayers, a ballerina whose life is completely consumed with pursuing perfection as a dancer. This devotion has made her the most technically skilled dancer in the company, but she is an emotional wreck, with no life outside of her work and no friends besides her mother, Erica Sayers. Erica is a former ballerina who gave up her own career to have Nina, and she channels that anger and regret over her lost glory by living somewhat vicariously through Nina and controlling her. Erica is always telling Nina what to do and keeping tabs on her at the ballet company, she won’t even let her adult daughter have a lock on her door.
Everything begins to change when the company director, Thomas Leroy, announces that the new ballet will be a re-imagined version of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, with the lead ballerina playing both the White Swan and Black Swan, both the princess and seductress. Nina has the technical skill to play the White Swan, but portraying the passion and seduction needed to be the Black Swan is outside of her comfort zone. She wins the role, but feels constant pressure from Thomas to be more sensual and seductive in her portrayal of the Black Swan. Thomas tells her to be like Lily, a sexy and free-spirited fellow dancer, causing Nina to obsess over her. The stress of trying to be perfect in both roles takes its psychological toll on Nina, and she quickly descends into madness, with hallucinations and physical manifestations of her stress. Nina starts to think that she is turning into a swan, with feathers starting to poke out of her back and her legs bending like a bird, culminating into her breathtaking performance as the Black Swan. The ending is weird and horrifying, causing the viewer to contemplate the question “Was it worth it?”
The film is well-written, well-acted, and beautifully shot. The world of ballet is treated very accurately; the pressure, sexism, ageism, and obsession with weight are all evident. The dancers are all competitive and cut-throat. Thomas sleeps with and gropes his dancers. Beth Macintyre, the previous prima ballerina, was forced to retire at the ripe old age of thirty-something, and the bone-thin Nina is shown puking, refusing food, and being delighted at losing weight.
Natalie Portman as Nina is amazing. She portrays Nina’s complex range of emotions and reactions perfectly, which is no easy task. Because Nina is the focal point of the movie, a lesser actress would have ruined the film in every scene, but Portman is deserving of every award she wins. Barbara Hershey is also excellent as Erica, with her creepy looks and weird outbursts, taking an unsympathetic character and making her relatable. Vincent Cassel is perfectly creepy as Nina’s sexual harasser and ballet director, and Mila Kunis is sexy as Nina’s rebellious rival. Even Winona Ryder did well as Beth in her few scenes, making me forget about Mr. Deeds and that shoplifting incident.
The film is visually appealing. Aronofsky uses colors, mirrors, and special effects to portray the characters and Nina’s moods and mental decline. During the ballet performance scenes, I felt like I was there in the audience. The shots were long and continuous, the sets and costumes were gorgeous, and the dancers skilled, with even Portman and Kunis looking like consummate professionals.
Overall, Black Swan was beautiful, captivating, interesting, and worth a second look.