This spellbinding movie, routinely described as a psychological thriller, is not to everyone’s taste but I absolutely loved it: dancing around the thin membrane between a fantasy/dream world and reality. Starring Natalie Portman as Nina, the beautiful but fragile ballerina who wishes to be the prima ballerina of Swan Lake, the movie opens with a dream sequence from this famous ballet. Evil Rothbart envelops the White Swan in his arms, but Nina wakes up in her room, a child’s bedroom of stuffed animals with a classic music jewelry box of a spinning mechanical ballerina twirling around.
In some ways this is not only a story about a ballerina who is striving for perfection in a severe and ruthless competition among other talented ballet dancers. It is also a story that combines not only Hans Christian Anderson’s “Red Shoes” about a girl who cannot find balance in her life because of her obsession to dance, but also “Glass Menagerie” which portrays the suffocating, self-destructive mother who lives through her daughter, wounding both.
Without giving away the ending, “Black Swan” is about vulnerability and strength, the virginal and the sexual, dual sides of personality and ego. Nina’s alter ego is Lily (played very cleverly by Mila Kunis), as beautiful as she is but more daring and more sensuous. Her back is tattooed with black wings, not exactly subtle, but visually artistic. Both young women are simultaneously attracted to and threatened by each other. Cinematography emphasizes this point with flashes of Portman’s face substituting for Kunis’s in several pivotal scenes.
There are a few cinematic touches that are over the top and could have used more explanation. A wall of paintings, for example, in Nina’s mother’s room are surreal, becoming animated—mouths and eyes moving. The viewer is not sure if these paintings are of Nina or her mother, whose own lackluster ballet career she angrily ended when she became pregnant. The mother, portrayed with terrifying subtlety by Barbara Hershey, dominates and infantilizes Nina as much as the mother in “Glass Menagerie”. Her own wounds are deepened in her daughter, both psychologically and physically.
“Black Swan’s” tale of hallucination, obsession and sexual repression is utterly overpowering from the very first dream sequence in the film. For me, at any rate, “Black Swan” was a metamorphosis encompassing a downward trajectory of frightening innocence and loss of self.