Looking back on the year 2010, Black Swan was THE movie of the year. Not just in terms of the awards pretty much everyone involved in it got, but in terms of the talk surrounding it and just how much audience it reached with an essentially minuscule budget, since its multifaceted nature appealed to so, so many different movie goers.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky, this psychological thriller follows Nina (played by Natalie Portman), an up and coming ballerina who gets cast in her company’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Something that was heavily inspired by the composition of a man whose work was so flamboyantly expressive that his other famous piece, 1812 Overture, involved literal cannon blasts at the end, is exactly the type of messy masterpiece you’d expect. Chaotic and raw, to the point of delusion, it would most likely get Tchaikovsky’s approval.
Nina is a skilled dancer, delicate and impeccable in her technique, yet in a way sterile in her approach to her own craft. The same things that make her perfect for the role of White Swan are her areas of shortcomings when it comes to playing the more devious part of the titular Black Swan.
The majority of the movie takes place either at the company, or at Nina’s home, taking us through the two battlefields that define her. First is the highly competitive world of ballet. Preparing for the role, she seeks approval of her demanding artistic director Thomas Leroy (played by Vincent Cassel), while constantly being reminded of the passing nature of fame and success (that she is yet to achieve) in the form the retiring prima ballerina (played by Winona Ryder), and the spontaneous art of letting go in the form of a newcomer, Lily (played by Mila Kunis)
The other battlefield is at the core of this movie, perhaps even more than ballet itself. It is the deeply dysfunctional codependent relationship with her controlling mother (played by Barbara Hershey), an ex ballerina herself, that has shaped Nina into the kind of person she is. The kind of person who, when asked who she is at a bar, answers that she is a dancer, when in fact, she was being asked for her name. These two sides of Nina’s life are shown not in contrast, but parallel to each other, and the frequent use of mirrors emphasized this perfectly.
Psychological thriller is not descriptive enough. Yes, it is a thriller for us, as we are the audience. At the core of it, it is a paranoia-driven psychological horror. It is about generational trauma (repressed and expressed), in the demanding and competitive world of high arts, where perfect skill and perfect looks go hand in hand, as they are the necessities of survival. And then all of that is wrapped in an unhinged spectacle of dance, disturbing and erotically charged sequences of Nina’s metamorphosis, as the final show approaches. She loses touch with reality on her way of chasing perfection, while at the same time learning to reject the idea of it. It is ultimately a movie about losing oneself to one’s own transformational power. Overrated or not, this movie is still spectacular.