Swan Lake is a beautiful, tragic story. The delicate art of ballet sensitively describes both the joy and turmoil of its main characters. Tchaikovsky’s accomplished composition of music expressed through dance tells of the love between a prince and a cursed princess, who is bound to an evil sorcerer. In their fight to free her from her captor, they realise that their only escape is to leap to their deaths.
When, in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, the artistic director of a New York ballet school announces that Swan Lake will be the season’s title performance, whispers begin to circulate amongst the dancers. Who will win the role of the white swan and its black counterpart? One of those dancers is Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a shy, innocent ballerina who lives under the strict watch of her troubled mother. Erica Sayers (Barbara Hershey) was once a ballerina, but sacrificed her career to have Nina. Bitter and twisted, she now lives her life vicariously through Nina’s experiences, and maintains an unhealthy influence over her daughter.
Director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) finally settles on Nina to play the lead, and challenges her to release her inhibitions in order to play both swan roles. ‘When I look at you, all I see is the white swan,’ he says. ‘I never see you lose yourself . . . perfection is not just about control, it’s about letting go.’ And so begins Nina’s harrowing descent into madness, as her yearning for perfection begins to take a consuming, strangling hold on her mind.
Natalie Portman’s Oscar-winning performance as the tormented ballerina is certainly award-worthy. It is with her that we delve deep into the psyche of an obsessive dancer. Black Swan explores the lengths to which someone will go to achieve their ambition. Hungry to refine her talent, Nina embraces self-inflicted physical and mental pain. Her simple existence is dominated by ballet. She lives in a bubble of strict regime, where her days consist of little more than practice and preparation for routines. Her mother ensures that nothing comes between her daughter and her art. The childlike décor of Nina’s bedroom, and her infantile relationship with her mother indicates that she is a woman who has not yet grown up. ‘He picked me, Mommy,’ she exclaims with breathless delight. Consequently, Nina has no close friends, and any interaction with her peers at the ballet school is distanced and strained.
Isolated from full adulthood and all that it offers, the lack of stable, reliable relationships in Nina’s life lends itself to the ease with which she falls. Erica maintains parental control, preserving Nina as her little girl. When their already shaky relationship begins to dissolve, we see glimpses of disturbing behaviour in Erica, who stands in the dark waiting for Nina to return home, and watches her sleep. Erica becomes an uncomfortable, suffocating matriarch. Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) is Nina’s role model, and is loved by many at the ballet school. When forced to retire due to her age, Beth begins to unravel and, now prone to suicide attempts and self-harming, spends the majority of the film in hospital. But Nina believes that Beth is ‘perfect.’ She aspires to be like her idol, disregarding her mental state.
Both Thomas and another dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis), seek to bring out the darker, sensual side of Nina. Lily introduces Nina to partying, alcohol, drugs and men. She is Nina’s main dancing rival and a more suitable black swan according to Thomas. She is ‘imprecise but effortless.’ She knows how to let go without being emotionally affected, unlike Nina. Thomas’s inappropriately sexual teaching methods at first evoke an angered reaction from Nina – to Thomas’s delight – since he can see that Nina has fire within her.
Whilst all of these characters contribute to Nina’s mental collapse, Black Swan indicates that the real enemy comes from within. Thomas reminds Nina that, ‘the only person standing in your way is you.’ Nina surrenders to the temptations before her, sending her into a schizophrenic state. The use of mirrors in every scene helpfully portrays the split in Nina’s mind; her reflection looks back at her with evil intent.
We all have goals and motivations. We’ve all experienced some form of ambition. So why are Nina’s seemingly healthy intentions so harmful? Because playing the swan role is not merely an ambition for Nina. It’s an obsession. This performance is the pinnacle of her career, the role of a lifetime, and Nina must be the best. She cannot relate to Lily’s ‘imprecise but effortless’ dancing, because anything less than the perfect performance is not an option. Nina will sacrifice everything to be the perfect swan, including her sanity and even her life.
As the narrative develops, Nina’s dark side begins to prevail. Her fascination with Beth continues despite Beth’s hostile behaviour towards her. Nina fails to acknowledge the root of Beth’s mania. After partying with Lily, Nina starts to feel smothered by her repressed existence, and resents her mother’s overbearing hold. But her isolation from any form of a supportive relationship means that there is no one to rescue her from her crazed state. Nina becomes further detached from her life, and alienated from reality. As she delves deeper into the character of the black swan she begins to hallucinate, seeing horrifying wounds appear on her body. This causes Nina to believe that she is physically transforming into the villainous character.
But Nina always has a choice. All of her actions and decisions throughout the film are voluntary. She can maintain a critical distance from her performance, or she can be defined by the role and allow her self-centred desires to consume her. Sadly, Nina chooses the latter. Her identity is bound up with her ability and achievements as a dancer, and as she plunges headlong into identifying with the black swan, that identity begins to fragment and ultimately destroys her. As in Swan Lake, the only release is found in death.
Nina’s infatuation with perfection may be a story of obsession and psychological disintegration, but it is also serves as a graphic example of a tendency that is found within every human being. We base our identities on things which cannot are not capable of bearing that burden. They become idols – false gods which cannot, in the end, meet our needs. The result is that we are enslaved by them, sometimes even destroyed by them. Tim Keller, who leads a church in New York, observes that, ‘So many sacrifice everything to the god of success. In ancient times, idol deities were bloodthirsty and hard to appease. They still are.’
There is only one secure foundation for human identity: a relationship with God through his son, Jesus Christ. It is the only one because that is what we were created to experience. Like Nina, we have a choice about what will define us, what we give our lives to. Jesus said, ‘If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but are yourself lost or destroyed?’ (Luke 9:23–25).
This article was first published on Damaris' Culturewatch website (www.culturewatch.org) - used with permission.
© Copyright Becci Jones (2011)
Black Swan: The price of perfection
Warning: This article contains plot spoilers
Published 07 March 2011 | Becci Jones