Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller Black Swan lends itself well to the dark melodrama of cinema; the film isn’t so much a foreboding “In a world” scenario as it is “In a life.” Any piece centered around the world of elite ballet is bound to play on theatrics, but this Tchaikovsky-fueled nightmare speaks volumes about the duality of perfection and proves itself to be a haunting reminder of the dangers of mental illness.
The film begins with the introduction of the coy, understated, but utterly devoted Nina, played by Natalie Portman. Dancing in one of the few remaining classical ballet troupes of New York City, Nina drives herself to extremes to perfect the art of performance. Throughout the first half of the film, the main plot is introduced: famed composer and Lincoln Center dictator Thomas Leroy will be producing his reimagining of the classic ballet Swan Lake. In the preliminary selections for the role of the Swan Queen, Nina is predictably chosen. However, the movie takes a turn when Nina’s drive for perfection falters during her tryout. She stumbles halfway through the dance designed for the nefarious Black Swan, and loses her chance to become the Swan Queen.
Distraught, Nina chooses to take matters into her own hands. In a personal meeting with Thomas, she uses seduction to persuade the composer into giving her the part, and thus begins her descent from the innocence of the White Swan to the devious, sensual Black Swan. Nina quickly discovers what it means to be “perfect” in Thomas’ eyes. All her life, Nina has sought to keep complete control of herself, whereas Thomas sees the perfect dancer as one who can feel the innate details of the piece.
The central theme of the piece is the dual-faceted nature of perfection. The Black Swan represents perfection that is effortless, natural, and carnal; meanwhile, the White Swan shows perfection through dedication, precision, and concentration. Nina struggles with being too focused on her dancing to allow herself to feel the piece, and the film’s mantra, “lose yourself,” rings as clearly through the audience’s ears as it does Nina’s. As the protagonist allows herself to become lost in the art, her grasp on reality begins to fall apart. Nina’s breakdown is marked by absolute release in dance; as Thomas seems to approve of her performance, Nina finds herself in pressing danger as her mental health deteriorates.
The way the piece moves from interesting to elegant is due to the artistic liberty that Aronofsky took with the film. The piece is primarily a juxtaposition of the carnal and the artful; the original Tchaikovsky arrangements for Swan Lake are used to backlight things as intimate as sex and self-mutilation. The reason that Black Swan stands out as a genuinely novel piece of cinema isn’t simply its shock value, it’s the fact that the director managed to make a would-be shocker into a moving, dramatic, and interesting experience for the audience. The disturbing insight into the mind of the protagonist is made nearly romantic through the careful choices of music and scenery on the director’s part.
Black Swan represents something rare; an original story that also manages to be well executed. The piece speaks volumes on duality, and presents itself as an example; the duality of the sinful and the saintly, the duality of the perfect and the passionate, the duality of the beautiful and the insane.