“I had the craziest dream last night. I was dancing the White Swan. It was different choreography, though. It was more like Bolshoi’s. It was the prologue, when Rothbart casts his spell” – Natalie Portman, Black Swan (2010)
Movies have been a big part of my life for a long time. Sometimes, I feel a connection to certain films so strong that I will add them to my collection without even watching them first. One of the first movies I bought on an impulse was Black Swan by Darren Aronofsky. I had a feeling that it would be the perfect movie for me. I was more correct than I ever expected.
The movie opens on an ambitious ballet dancer named Nina (Natalie Portman) having a dream about performing the role of the Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The following morning, she goes to her ballet company for the beginning of their new performance season. With the surprising dismissal of prima ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder), Nina plans to stand out when she is chosen by Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the company director, for private auditions for the season’s first program, Swan Lake. An obstacle appears in the form of free-spirited newcomer, Lily (Mila Kunis). Lily’s talent and possession of the confidence Nina struggles to find make the latter feel more pressured to impress with her performance. After a disappointing audition and a last-chance effort to put herself ahead of her fellow dancers, Nina is awarded the role of the Swan Queen.
As the story follows Nina, we see that she experiences anxiety, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and hallucinations. In addition to her personal issues, she struggles at home with gaining independence from her overprotective mother. As opening night nears, Nina’s experiences with these issues become more intense. A more sinister version of herself appears throughout the film and taunts her. Some events occur with other characters that turn out to have never happened at all.
Nina increasingly loses her grip on reality with each passing day. The pressure from Thomas to break through her own barriers permeates into all aspects of her life. Furthermore, she grows more paranoid that Lily is conspiring to take her role. On opening night, Nina’s inner struggle emerges in ways she never prepared for, leading to devastation, triumph, and permanent consequences.
This film demonstrates how much happens under the surface of art, although this is an extreme case. The work of dancers is not glossed-over in this movie. It shows a glimpse of the pain, ritual, dedication, and preparation professional dancers endure for their craft. I visit the Cincinnati Ballet as often as I can, and it always amazes me what the human body is capable of (not my body, but you know). Portman’s performance is meticulous and inspiring. Nina is incredibly real and a magnet for empathy. It is not a mystery that Black Swan‘s plot mirrors Swan Lake‘s. The story and the characters’ experiences are handled so authentically and artfully, however, that the viewer feels like a part of it rather than being patronized.
Black Swan was welcomed into my life with no more introduction than the poster and a few clips in the trailer. I have never regretted that. I find something new every time I watch it that elevates the story even more. Natalie Portman gives a performance that sticks with me long after the final frame. This film showed me a new way of doing horror and telling stories of unique human experience. It combines art, fantasy, and horror in the best way. I have been enjoying it for over a decade. At this point, I am sure it will never cease to shock, inspire, and captivate me.
Until next time,