Black Swan is an overpowering, astonishing film. It is a movie of extremes: black swan, white swan; freedom, control; gracefulness, horror. In it, the increasing pressure of an upcoming Swan Lake performance is clearly meant to be seen as pushing Nina, (the main character played by Natalie Portman) deeper into her schizophrenic obsessions and visions.
Nina is obsessed with technique. Her technique is masterful. According to the artistic director of the ballet studio (played by Vincent Cassel), her fatal flaw is her inability to let go, to “enjoy herself,” to “surprise herself and her audience.” As a dancer, Nina is fastidious and refined, fragile and vulnerable. As an actress, Natalie Portman embodies the vulnerable and fragile aspects of the character maybe a little too overtly. If this film attempts to explore the pull between control and transcendence, it does so unrelentingly. It equates intensity with passion, and confuses recklessness with freedom.
But the film is not overstated from start to finish. There are elegant scenes of dancing. There are sharp-edged subtleties that cut deeper than some of the more blatant emotional swells and shocking scenes. In one scene with the entire ballet studio warming up, the director, cooly taps dancers on the shoulders, “choosing them,” only to reveal at the end of the warm-up that the chosen ones are going to be left at the bottom of the pecking order. His manipulative touch stabs and twists under the skin of these vulnerable women. Another telling detail: Nina cannot bring herself to indulge in an exctacy pill when it is offered to her, but she accepts a drink when she knows that no one knows that she knows that the pill has been emptied into that drink. She allows herself to be “surprised,” taking a stab at a kind of controlled spontenaity.
Why aim for mere beauty when you can aim for perfection instead? More than something beautiful, or elegant, Nina is after something “perfect.” Something inaccessable to her as she is. Rather than doing something different, she finds that she must become someone different. Some wounded version of herself. It is one of the film’s darkest ironies that she must become fractured in order to achieve the kind of “perfection” she desires. In the final lines of the film, Nina claims to have experienced perfection. But don’t believe it for a second. She has found no graceful transition between black swan and white. Rather she is white swan overcome, overcooked, and overwhelmed, Or a swan trying to break out of a shell made from jagged shards of glass.
She is a white swan alone on a black lake.