[caution: the following post is a narrative analysis of BLACK SWAN. as such, it's filled with spoilers, half-baked jib-jab, and words that even a thesaurus shouldn't contain. proceed at your own risk]
Walking out of Black Swan, I knew that I was impressed. The one hundred and three minutes of celluloid that had just flashed before me were not only visually appealing (and I’ll be goddamned if you don’t think it’s eye-candy) but bursting at the thematic seams.
It’s a layered work – an adaptation of Swan Lake in which a ballet company reimagines Swan Lake. Yes, that’s right. There’s sexual tension, the tug-and-pull between repression and reckless liberation. Body image issues arise, as self-mutilation and bulimia make both subtle and palpable appearances. And for good measure, a heaping of parental expectation is thrown in, reminding the audience that even the most brilliant of feats can lose their shimmer when serving as vicarious fulfillment.
It’s all in Black Swan. All that and more, in fact. But what struck me as most compelling about Aronofsky’s fifth feature is that it serves as a warning to those in pursuit of a goal. No, I don’t think Black Swan is telling the audience to relish in apathy, aspiring for nothing and thereby achieving everything desired. But I do think that the movie is pursing its lips next to the ear of the aspirant individual, whispering, “Look at yourself — is this what you want?”
Because without even knowing it, even the purest of feather can become sullied and despoiled.
Nina (Natalie Portman) is finally given the opportunity of a lead role in the ballet company to which she’s dedicated her best years. The prospect becomes even more alluring when it’s revealed that the lead consists of two roles — both the white and black swan of Swan Lake. However, Nina’s naiveté and innocence only lend themselves to the white, leaving her incapable of convincingly pulling off the dark bird.
But Nina’s obsessed. And as such, she pushes herself to, and then beyond, her limits. Physically, Nina’s body begins breaking down and her years of conditioning prove barely adequate. Mentally (and more intriguingly), the ballerina’s fixation becomes her very undoing. She begins to see dark versions of herself, stalking her on subways and streets, haunting her dreams, chasing her at every opportunity.
This shadowy mirror-image represents the self that is formed when ideals are compromised. Who among us hasn’t involuntarily summoned a personal characteristic that immediately induced winces? Perhaps a sarcastic comment to a waitress. Maybe a quip too cynical for mixed company. We’ve all said or done things that we wished we hadn’t. And why do we wish them away? Because they inform us that lurking under the warm comforters of the conscious is a bony, cold-as-ice, cadaverous body. A crusty shell of human debris we’d rather not have inside of us.
In addition to her own Bizarro-projections, Nina faces two other figures that warn her of the potential pitfalls of her journey. First there is Lily (Mila Kunis), a new member of the company who compensates for technical inadequacy with passion and sexual zeal. On the one hand, Nina envies Lily’s unfettered spirit and wishes she could express such a carefree air. The other hand, however, has Nina resenting the fact that she has to forfeit innocence and emulate Lily in order to best encapsulate the black swan. Despite being well into her 20s, Nina is very much a little girl and cannot stand the thought of entering the adult world.
The other caveat comes in the form of Beth (Winona Ryder), the ballerina who once led the company but is cast aside in favor of younger talent. Although she was considered one of the greatest dancers to grace the stage, her age catches up to her and she cannot help but become obsolete. After being let go, Beth walks into traffic and her legs are mangled in the process. Nina is not unsettled because she feels guilty for being the replacement, but because Beth is evidence of an ephemeral perfection. The dream cannot live forever, so even if all of Nina’s efforts pay off, the achievement cannot help but fade away.
Nina sees the admonitions — her shadowy doppelganger, Lily, and Beth. But she is too far gone, too emotionally and spiritually invested in her pursuit, to heed the warnings. Instead, she dives in headfirst and willingly subjects herself to the terrors in order to actualize her dream.
The ending is a terrific first-person view of the deteriorating psyche. Nina pays Beth a visit in the hospital and ends up stabbing her in the face with a scalpel, ostensibly killing her. She then murders Lily backstage by smashing her into a full-length mirror. With nothing to lose, Nina hits the stage for the black swan segment and delivers the performance of her career.
However, it is revealed that she imagined the murderous incident and that Lily is fine. At this point, the viewer also has to question whether or not Nina actually killed Beth. But it doesn’t really matter if Beth is dead. What matters is the fact that in her mind’s eye, Nina has murdered Beth and Lily, smashing a mirror in the process.
Why does this matter? As stated above, Beth and Lily serve as the cautionary characters, individuals that Nina does not want to become but will have to if she pursues her role to the fullest.
The mirror’s destruction is even more important. Mirrors and other reflective surfaces are featured in almost every single shot of Black Swan. As a film about an individual’s obsession and the ensuing consequences, the mirrors help the audience know that some semblance of honest self-assessment, no matter how minute, is maintained. When Nina smashes the mirror, she is finally free enough to chase the dream without hesitation.
Nina becomes the black swan. And then she dies.
Again, Black Swan is rife with thematic imagery and symbolism, and it’d be foolish to suggest that the film can be summed up in under a thousand words. But I can’t shake the thought that Aronofsky is warning us to be careful what we wish for. We must understand the consequences of tunnel-vision, being so focused on a goal that we lose sight of the graver implications.
Sometimes our ambitions serve us well.
And sometimes they kill us.