Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenwriters: Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John J. McLaughlin
Length: 1h 48m
Synopsis: Nina Sayers (Portman) is a young and promising ballerina trying her best to earn her big break. The company she works for has decided to open its new season of performances with a new rendition of Swan Lake, which will be a version unlike most others because director Thomas Leroy (Cassel) wants the same dancer to play both the white and black swan. After dealing with much stress Nina is cast in this once-in-a-life-time role, but that stress only builds on itself more and more the closer she gets to opening night. Fellow ballerina Lily (Kunis) befriends Nina during this time, but Nina suspects she has ulterior motives. And if that weren’t enough, Nina’s mother gradually overwhelms her with even more pressure to succeed. Drowning in anxiety Nina’s real challenge isn’t performing in the ballet but surviving long enough to do so.
Synopsis of Swan Lake: The ballet of Swan Lake is generations old and has been retold in many different ways, with the most common disparities being sited at each rendition’s ending (ranging from romantic to tragic). The version being referred to in the film is the traditional tale: A beautiful girl is turned into a white swan by an evil sorcerer and the only way to turn human again is for a man to profess is love for her. She ends up meeting and connecting with a handsome prince, but he is also introduced to a black swan that looks identical to the white. The black swan attempts to seduce the prince, at which point he accidentally professes his love for her. Because of this mistake the white swan’s spell cannot be broken. The prince and the white swan then decide that if they can’t be together in life then they shall be so in death, and proceed to take their own lives.
Analysis: Over the course of the narrative Nina undergoes a change in character that is not unlike a metamorphosis. At the onset we see her as a shy, timid, fragile girl who puts forth a ton of effort but doesn’t have a lot of moxie or self-confidence. By the end we recognize her as a more intractable young woman who is willing to do anything to assure her chances of impressing the world with the priceless opportunity of being the lead in Swan Lake. It is easy to notice that this transformation correlates with a similar change in her self-image. Early on she sees herself as fragile and weak, and her temperament with her mother is rather subservient and passive – much like a little girl (the look of her bedroom compliments this image, with everything awash in pink hues and cluttered with stuffed animals). But as things progress her more primal desires are encouraged to come out, some of which are sexual in nature (I’ll reserve a discussion about the relation between self-confidence, sexual aggression and self-image for another time). With this gradual change in self-image from girl to woman, passivity is replaced by prideful assertiveness; or rather, the former conflicts with the latter more and more frequently.
One visual motif that director Darren Aronofsky likes to play with is connected to the subject of self-image. Nina has repeat encounters with mirrors, each of which reveals something about how she sees herself at a particular point in time. Early on her body language in front of her bedroom mirror suggests a lack of self-confidence and dissatisfaction with her shape, while later, during the metamorphosis of her character, she is faced with opposing reflections – sometimes simultaneously. At some points her newer self-image is even reflected back at her on the faces of those around her, and the more she changes the more frequently she is forced to see this newer image. Her reaction to such reflections is that of horror, and this is because she refuses to admit to herself that significant changes are taking place – she is in denial and does not yet associate herself with the characteristics she is adopting, leading to a crisis of identity.
For those who have seen the trailer or commercial spots for this film the following should not be considered spoiling, but for those who have not I would encourage you to read no further and go into the theater sans any further expectations.
Aronofsky and the writers take the concept of metamorphosis literally with this film, to the extent that at certain intervals Nina can be seen to be transforming into the very black swan that director Leroy has tried so hard to coax her to become (in terms of her style of dance). Indeed, the characteristics associated with the role of the white swan (fragility, timidity, etc.) are what we see in Nina at the beginning, and those associated with the black swan (sexuality, deviousness, etc.) are what we see in her by the film’s end. To emphasize this we are privy to several instances when Nina discovers physical changes in her body that indicate she is actually transforming into a black swan. The question that immediately comes to mind about this is “why;” Why choose to convey Nina’s metamorphosis in a literal manner? The answer to this is two-fold. First, such a conveyance is supposed to horrify both us and Nina because the prospect of losing one’s innocence and succumbing to primordial, selfish desires is (at least in this case) thought to be a degeneration of character. Second, it helps bridge the gap between self-image and identity. In Nina’s case, because she is partially delusional insofar as she is in denial about the changes taking place to her character the physical metamorphosis forces her to acknowledge (and even confront?) that transformation. One’s character is inextricably bound to their identity, and so for there to be a disparity between the two when looking in the mirror because that person is in denial a direct and palpable manner of communication is needed to correct that lack of correspondence. All in all it would appear that the film is claiming a person’s self-image ought to be intertwined with – or at least reflective of – their true character, as when this happens that person’s self-image then corresponds with their true identity. Whether this is supposed to benefit an individual or not is not made explicitly clear by the film, but it seems that it takes this notion of a proper self-image to be obligatory. What is dynamic about this assertion is that it can be viewed to pertain to the level of the individual as well as a cultural or societal level. With the larger sense in mind it would be interesting to take note of any cultural critiques not picked up on during the first viewing.