Director Aronofsky strikes again with Black Swan. The milieu of ballet is a gamble for fickle audience tastes, yet Aronofsky strips away monotony of solitary training to highlight high octane competition. The premise is less about intense female jealousy than about being led into an unwarranted life. It is not Nina’s peers that destroy her, but unraveling instigated by an unquestionable dedication to dance.
Being a ballerina requires poise and elegant balance. Having trained several years myself, “toe” is another level of pain for performatic beauty. Pivoting one’s entire body on a single point demands strength through lithe muscles. Natalie Portman as Nina opens the film dancing in a spotlight amidst darkness. Two males personified by Swan Lake characters Prince Siegfried and evil sorcerer Von Rothbart invade and threaten her space. She dances in calculated fear and emotion. Von Rothbart’s costume resembles more mutant cretin than humanistic menace. Aronofsky layers the soundtrack with rushed and labored breathes of Nina along with the growling from the evil sorcerer. Cut to Nina waking up in her overly childish room.
At the outset, reflections from glass panes, mirrors, and grimy subway windows often reveal the complexity of the character’s interiors. Mirrors pepper scenes and rooms in abundance recreating the paneled mirrors found in the rehearsal rooms. Since Nina cannot envision herself accurately, the mirrors reinforce splits. French choreographer Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) criticizes Nina’s adherence to form over feeling in her movements as reasons for being initially rejected for Swan Queen in Swan Lake. Simplified “frigid” translates to sexual repression and fragility found in eating disorder tendencies and self-mutilation. The Black Swan is to be played by the White Swan ballerina which is unusual. Darkness is drugs, alcohol, sex, masturbation, and rebelling against authorities such as her mother. Lily goodness is cleverly mocked in having Lily (Mila Kunis) inhabit the more enriched, experienced bad girl ballerina. Nina wears white; black adorns Lily. The battle lines have been drawn.
Both Kunis and Portman have a robust male followings that if ballet is not their preference, fantasies of lesbianism between the two and masturbation will satiate said viewers. The psycho-thriller element keeps the film lively and enchanting. Female decay and irrelevance is best illustrated by fallen principal dancer Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder, her acting career has somewhat flat-lined) whose self destruction is accelerated by a capricious system of celebrating fresh faces over the sophistication experienced dancers possess. Nina defends and emulates Beth only to run in fear as if failure might be contagious. Aronofsky relishes capturing female bodily harm as manifestation of interior damage. Hallucinations dominate majority of the frames to where how much anxiety is psychological versus pulling from reality remains dubious.
Erica Sayers (the great Barbara Hershey), Nina’s mother, tightly grasps at her daughter’s dancing promise as her own. Removing herself from competition years earlier to have Nina, Erica obsessively paints portraits of Nina in gruesome renderings. The absence of males, such as never mentioning Nina’s father, forces a Sapphic universe. Aronofsky popularizes a fetishism men have about women hating one another. For glory, both men and women seek to obliterate their competition. Except here, Nina’s worst enemy is herself.
The last act shows a European sensibility that seals Black Swan as unforgetable. The ultimate sacrifice for art is always astonishingly perfect.