I didn’t get it when I was 13 and way too young to be seeing this film, but now (8 years later), I get it. Darren Aronofsky is brilliant. Black Swan is a psychological horror film and although I felt uncomfortable the entire time, I can still say it’s definitely not the worst I’ve seen. The narrative tells a story of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a ballerina who lands the role as the Swan Queen (the white and the black swan) in the upcoming production of the classic story, Swan Lake. Her psychological state goes further and further to the point of no return as her obsession for perfection and the extreme pressure put on her by various external sources take their toll on her both mentally and physically. Aronofsky did an amazing job at telling this story in a sense that it was highly disturbing but also hard to look away (most parts of the film anyway).
One of the interesting aspects of the film is the concept of the main story of Swan Lake being reflected in Nina’s life which contributes to her going mad. It is important to understand the story of Swan Lake before seeing this film in order to fully appreciate the depth and the duality of the narrative. I recently went to see a production of Swan Lake which is what urged me to rewatch this film that I detested years ago and it made all the difference.
Basically, there is a prince who is devoted to the beautiful white swan who represents purity and innocence, but later in the story, the black swan seduces the prince and his loyalty to the white swan fades. The black swan who represents mystery, guile and seduction, of course, acts as the white swan’s counterpart.
The antagonists in this film are great and the reason I know this is because of how sincerely angry and disgusted they made me feel. Nina has to endure abuse from her mother who is trying to live vicariously through her due to her failed dreams of becoming the ballerina she always wanted to be. Because of this, she puts an immense amount of pressure on Nina despite knowing full well of her fragile psychological state. Not to mention the excessive patronization towards Nina and trying to control every aspect of her life. Nina’s mother plays a key role in pushing Nina to the edge of madness.
Another key antagonist is Thomas, the sexually abusive artistic director who not only takes advantage of Nina and constantly sexually harasses her, but also bullies her verbally throughout the film as if this will push her towards perfection and not depression or insanity.
Aronofsky plays with elements of mise-en-scène in order to instil the notions of good vs. evil or even white swan vs. black swan. Early on in the film, Nina is always seen wearing all white while other dancers wear a mix of different toned colours while the one always seen wearing black is Lily (Mila Kunis) who portrays the personification of the black swan in the film, Nina’s friend and rival.
As the film goes on and Nina begins to lose sight of what is real and what’s not. Sometimes she is seen wearing black, and other times she returns back to white. This is a perfect symbol of not only what is going on with Nina internally, but it also reflects the confusion of the viewers who are desperately trying to figure out the difference between reality and hallucination.
One more key motif is demonstrated brilliantly with the use of mirrors. Nina is often seen looking into her reflection and obviously trying to find herself as she continues to lose herself. The use of the reflections also helps to convey both the good and evil side of Nina, each trying to overpower the other.
Natalie Portman’s performance, needless to say, was surprisingly good. I say surprising because the film begins and Nina is all encompassing of the white swan, innocent, pure and even childlike (she even had to change her voice to fit the part). For this reason, you’re inclined to conform with the thoughts of the other characters who express their doubt in Nina’s capability in playing both swans. However, anyone to think that Portman wouldn’t pull this off is soon proven wrong.
The last point I want to mention is the score of the film. Instead of being traditional and sticking to the original Swan Lake sound track, they take a specific variation of it and play it backwards and distorted to even further reflect the madness.
I wish I could say I would love to go back and watch Black Swan again so I can pick up on other elements that I missed, but I’m quite content knowing that I will likely never have to see it again. For now, I choose to stick with appreciating whatever aspects of the film that I did not miss.