Life is full of disappointment. That’s obvious enough, but a person’s success or failure at life, at any component of life, is how well that person copes with disappointment. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a young woman ill-equipped to deal with these disappointments, which is unfortunate because she faces them nearly every day. She’s a ballerina in a premiere New York City troupe, technically perfect but relegated to background roles because her perfection has rendered her frigid. There are flashes of something brilliant within her, but they’re dull, muted, must be coaxed out. Her director, her co-workers, her ex-ballerina mother—they tell her that she isn’t the kind of dancer who gets offered the glamor part, but Nina proves them wrong when she is cast as the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. The trouble is that she must prove herself worthy of the role, which requires perfection, but also a kind of rage that she doesn’t seem capable of.
Nina is a fragile individual, a porcelain figurine set spinning in a music box. Her mother (Barbara Hershey) has bred Nina like that, from the pink walls of her room to the fact that Nina, unlike most young women her age, has yet to have her ears pierced. Her life is the definition of routine: Wake up, eat breakfast, go to rehearsal, come back, go to sleep. The routine is disturbed by a rash, maybe, or Nina’s inert need to pick at herself, to hunt for and eradicate any flaw or blemish she sees. Her mother dresses and undresses her, obsessively calls her on her cell phone, knows exactly what roles she’s suited to dance. Two things are clear in Nina’s mother: That she wants for her daughter what she gave up as a young woman, and that she wants, as a ballerina, to compete against Nina, even if only her ghost is dancing.
Nina’s fragility works in her favor, to an extent, because the role of the white swan requires a dancer to be removed, fragile and perfect, a dancer capable of expressing love without being able to speak it. She auditions for the part and her director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), tells Nina that she’d be perfect were he only looking for the one role. But his take on Swan Lake is one of duality. Somewhere within the white, virginal swan, there’s got to be something dark, physical, full of lust; a black swan aching to burst from the white one’s fragile cage. He doesn’t see that in her, believes the black swan’s embodiment to be Lily (Mila Kunis), a free spirited ballerina from San Francisco whose lack of technical perfection is more than made up for by the emotion that comes across in her movement.
“You can tell she’s not faking it,” Leroy tells Nina. But if Nina is guilty of anything, it isn’t faking. She’s utterly incapable of hiding herself from those around her, though she’s so obsessed with building a wall around herself that she fails to notice. Obsession plays a big role in Nina’s downfall. She’s obsessed with the rash on her back, obsessed with the technical perfection of her dance, obsessed with becoming somebody who isn’t her. Her deepest desire is to become Lily or Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), the company’s retiring lead ballerina, but she doesn’t understand what makes these people work, and it seems like the walls are closing in as she constructs them.
Every minute of Black Swan is packed with director Darren Aronofsky’s signature blend of the subtle and the glaringly obvious. For instance, it isn’t enough to demonstrate Lily as Nina’s opposite by showing the difference in their dancing. Lily is tanned and tattooed, a cigarette smoking, pill popping girl from San Francisco. To Nina, pale and socially stunted, Lily is simultaneously alien and goddess. Every compliment paid to Lilly is a deathblow. Every exchange between the two is as forced and awkward as it is disconnected. It’s the same between Nina and her mother, the same between her and Leroy.
This is a bold, audacious film, obsessed with self-destruction, perfection and professionalism. It’s not merely a feminine version of The Wrestler, whose main character also suffered for his profession. Mickey Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson was a past-his-prime wrestler living a hardscrabble life in search of one last glorious moment. Plenty of us know people like that, but Nina’s a little different. As a ballerina, she’s an anachronism, some rich philanthropist’s bauble. Somebody like Lily would have learned to live with and accept that fact, but to Nina, dancing isn’t just a job—it’s all she knows. Her downfall isn’t pride, envy or physical limitation. She is pushed to the brink by her insecurities, and it’s there that the darker aspects of her personality lay, waiting to take over.
Black Swan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. With Natalie Portman (Nina Sayers), Mila Kunis (Lily), Vincent Cassel (Thomas Leroy), Barbra Hershey (Erica Sayers), and Winona Ryder (Beth Macintyre). Released December 17, 2010, by Fox Searchlight.