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The High Stakes of Black Swan

by Mike Anton

We always marvel at the pursuit of perfection.  To see someone get a perfect score in gymnastics or to go an entire season without losing is literally a super-human effort.  We believe these sorts of people to be born into this ideal, destined to greatness.  The results are clear, but the way they were attained is muddled.  What we don’t see is how truly insane the drive and commitment of a person must be to achieve a goal that is impossible; to err is what makes us human after all.  This insanity is the focus of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, a cautionary tale tries to remind us how waxen our wings are.

Nina (a never-better Natalie Portman) is a ballet dancer at a prestigious ballet company in New York City.  She seems like a nice enough girl, keeping to herself and working very hard on her craft.  Nina dreams of being the lead in “Swan Lake,” a story of a virginal girl transformed into a swan by a magical spell that can only be broken by the true love of a prince.  But, before she could consummate her love with the prince, the evil warlock turns his daughter into a black swan, taking away both the white swan’s love and her ability to revert back to human form.  Seeing only defeat, she takes her life.  Uplifting stuff, innit?  Coincidentally, her company is going to be putting up “Swan Lake,” and Nina sets herself up for a run at the lead.  It all seems like a Disney film, doesn’t it?

Enter Nina’s mother, played by a terribly unsettling Barbara Hershey, who earns all the devious connotations that go along with calling someone in a film “mother.”  We get the story of Nina and her mother in small pieces.  Mother was a dancer of middling talent; great, but not great enough.  She wanted to dance the lead, and probably expected to be handed the title.  Alas, it was not to be.  She was only the top 1% of ballet dancers in the world.  If only she was 0.5%.  She had Nina (possibly through an ill-advised fling with her company’s director) and that caused an abrupt end to her career, or gave her a reason to quit without admitting defeat.  Naturally, mother had decided that Nina would be given every opportunity to excel where she herself had failed.  Naturally, this means she becomes a stage mother who forces her dreams onto her child.  Naturally, this does emotional harm to her daughter.

Nina is a beautiful but rigid creature, 25% natural, 75% honed.  Her striking feminine features seem almost to be an accident, as her room looks like an homage to  My Pretty Pony.  Nina’s age is never given, but considering she looks like Natalie Portman as her bedroom is decked out in a shocking pink that covers the walls, her sheets, and the tons of stuffed animals that line the windowsill, once can assume this is not the healthiest choice.  Almost like Rapunzel, her mind must be similar in mindset to her room’s design, locked in that part of childhood that is completely dominated by the will of your parents.

The film we see is entirely of Nina’s vision.  The consistent series of shots that sit directly behind her shoulders forcing use to see her hectic worldview tell us as much, giving us a keen look of how much her mother’s influence has effected the world around Nina.  When one aims for perfection, that allows for a sliver of victory and a good deal of failure.  It is clearly defined.  This ideal is externalized in the color palate of Black Swan.  Outside of the startlingly pink room that Nina has been ensconced in, the rest of the world is in stark white and black.

Mother calls Nina her “sweet little girl,” and one can only guess the rigorous training program that Nina went through to learn what is right and what is wrong.  The sweet, virginal girl is dressed almost totally in white as the movie begins.  She takes to a New York that is mired in an all-encompassing black that falls all around her.  At a gala ball to celebrate the opening of the new season, the large party is dressed primarily in black while Nina stands out in a blinding white.  Nina does not belong here among these people, or, rather, is not adequately prepared to do so.

This is most evident with the director of the company, Thomas Leroy, played by a sensual Vincent Cassel.  He admires Nina’s dedication to form, but has no use for her lack of feeling.  Robots can dance properly; humans can dance movingly.  That’s where the beauty comes in.  For the lead in his Swan Lake, he needs a dancer that could play both the white and black swans.  He tells Nina she’s a perfect white swan, but doesn’t have the necessary joie de vivre to inhabit the black swan, as he sits dressed in black in his minimalist apartment, which matches his workspace at the theater, shrouded in black accents.

Thomas constant disapproval with Nina’s work is a heavily ironic affair.  All of this time, Nina’s been dedicated to her craft, following all of her mother’s rules on what was to be a sure road to success.  She put her personal life on the back-burner to train, and train, and train.  Now, that eschewing of the real, the carnal, is what holds her back from getting what she’s always wanted.  When challenged by Thomas to discuss her sexual life she reacts as if she’s been assaulted.  When asked the question, “do you enjoy making love?” shock and blind panic isn’t the most self-assured and mature of responses.

The introduction of Mila Kunis’s Lily, the new dancer, does not make things easier on Nina.  Lily (whose name construction practically mirrors “Nina”) looks strikingly similar to our heroine, but that’s where the similarities end.  Lily moves with feeling, using a vast experience that Nina’s heard about in books her mother doesn’t allow her to read.  She is also draped exclusively in black, from formal wear to rehearsal attire, the easily-removable panties she wears, and the exceedingly bad-ass tattoos she has on her back that looks sort of like wings.  (It doesn’t seem the most prudent thing to be a ballet dancer and have large tattoos on your back, but I digress, because it works for the movie and the tats make Kunis even more attractive, so who cares, right?)  Thus, Nina has cast Lily as her own black swan who is gunning for Nina’s spot.  Real or not, Nina believes it, so the film must believe it.

Nina begins to seek out those experiences she’s missed, but does it in the way that her mother brought her up:  all or nothing.  She starts to believe that she cannot succeed while being a “sweet girl,” and instead begins to drop herself into the morally loose world that Lily populates.  Without the ability one learns to deal with the gray, we watch Nina slowly slip from white directly to black, both in her life and the rehearsal clothes she dons as the movie moves forward.

The further she slips, the further she tries to inhabit the role she’s always wanted (and her mother’s always wanted for her), the further she falls.  She’s the home schooled girl who goes to college and leaves six weeks later an alcoholic.  Without any way to slowly assume these morally and socially gray topics and issues into her life, she takes on too many too fast, and drives herself towards an already insane goal with an equally insane zeal.  And when Nina finally inhabits the role, she becomes perfect, but only as a cautionary tale.

Mike Anton is the Editor-In-Chief at The Inclusive. Mike writes movie reviews and interview pieces for The Film Stage as well as screenplays, sketches, and the like. He lives in New York City and though he's an avid beard and flannel enthusiast, he does not consider himself a hipster. Contact him at mike.anton[at]theinclusive.net or @mpants