Central to the beauty and power of the ballet Swan Lake—of which Black Swan is a sort of contemporary, hallucinatory offspring—are contrasts and dynamics, complimentary parts of a yin-yang whole: Light and dark, good and evil, soft and loud (as in Tchaikovsky's famous music). When the ballet is performed, one ballerina plays both the heroine Odette ("The White Swan") and her evil foil/doppelganger Odile ("The Black Swan"). It's a dream role, to be sure, but supremely challenging to pull off. The dual parts require the performer to simultaneously attune to her inner darkness and light, hopping back and forth between dialectical extremes, to the delight of audiences enthralled by the bravura embodiment of such range and passion. It'd be enough to make any ballerina go insane.
Darren Aronfosky's Black Swan is about Nina (Natalie Portman), an ingénue ballerina in a New York City company who lands the coveted White/Black Swan role after the reigning prima (Winona Ryder) is dismissed on account of being too old. Nina is a tightly wound, sweetly mannered perfectionist with a crazy-eyed stage mom (Barbara Hershey), so naturally she takes her prized star turn extremely seriously. In the lead up to her big debut, Nina's fixation on giving the audience the perfect performance begins to consume her. (Fitting that the film's official website is ijustwanttobeperfect.com.) She becomes obsessed with her weaknesses and paranoid that her understudy (Mila Kunis) has an eye on sabotage. When the ballet director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) tells Nina that her Black Swan is less than convincing, she becomes fixated on tapping into her own dormant or undiscovered darkness. And this is when things really start to spin out of control.
If you've seen Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream or Π, you'll know some of what you're in for with Black Swan. It's a psychological thriller full of paranoia, hallucinations, dream sequences, quick-cut shock shots, and a steadily increasing distrust of reality. How much of what we are seeing is real? How much is simply in the mind of Nina? Is there ultimately any difference?
As heady and surreal as Black Swan turns out to be, its closest kin in the family of Aronofsky films is the director's most recent work, 2008'sThe Wrestler. In addition to sharing similar visual styles (muted, cold colors and handheld camerawork), both films concern protagonists who make a living sacrificing their bodies for the thrill and pleasure of audiences. Aronofsky has said in interviews that Swan could be considered a companion piece to The Wrestler, and that both stemmed from an original concept he had for a movie about a romance between a ballet dancer and a professional wrestler.
Indeed, taken as a pair, Swan and The Wrestler seem almost like a diptych exploration of gender, embodiment, and how we understand the self in and through vocation. In The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke played a steroid-pumping professional wrestler in search of an authentic persona apart from the prescribed cultural tropes of hyper-masculinity and machismo, through which he had made a career. In Black Swan, Portman's Nina is similarly trapped inside cultural notions of femininity and beauty. The ubiquitous mirrors in her life constantly remind her of the importance of a girlish figure and a graceful pose. Her bedroom is all dolls and her wardrobe mostly pink, dainty and Victorian to the core.