I’m not entirely sure how much of what we see in Black Swan actually exists beyond the fevered imagination of the protagonist. I’m not entirely sure there’s one definitive answer to that conundrum. I am entirely sure that I love this about the film: that multiple viewings lead you to different conclusions about the psychological robustness of its central character, and about the truth of every event and every person encountered. And that perilous hold on reality is far from the only thing to love about this gorgeously horrific nightmare.
Yes, Black Swan is a horror movie, magnificently brutal and dread-full, sophisticated in its slipperiness and elegant in its play on the “evil twin” trope. It’s absurdly campy and intensely bleak at the same time. It refuses to give in to the ridiculous notion that a story about a woman must be of interest only to women, as so many films do by avoiding acknowledging that the authorities and madnesses of women are human, instead of somehow indicative of a peculiar female malady… and so Black Swan becomes that rarity, a story about a woman that is — or should be — universal in appeal and power.
One of the first images director Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream) gives us of Natalie Portman’s ballerina Nina Sayers is on the subway, as her own shadowy reflection stares back at her from a tunnel-darkened train window. It’s when, perhaps, her “evil twin” first breaks away from her… and then it seems, maybe, to hover over her as the camera follows her closely behind, peering over her shoulder, almost stalking her, as she enters the Lincoln Center studio that is home to her company, the company she hopes to lead in a new production of Swan Lake. The lead role is a demanding one, one that requires her to be both the demure, virginal White Swan and the aggressively sexual Black Swan. She is already the White Swan, her creative director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel: Eastern Promises, Ocean’s Thirteen) notes: but can she inhabit the Black Swan equally convincingly?
Was Nina on the edge even before she wins the role, and must learn how to exude evil as effortlessly as she does good? Probably. Nina’s ambition has already been expressing itself in ways she wouldn’t intend: she’s so single-minded that she’s lost herself in the process of becoming perfect… and she’s losing what she needs to be a compelling dancer. “Beautiful as always, Nina,” a coach tells her during a group warmup session, but then: “Relax.” Leroy keeps insisting she has to “lose herself” and “let go” and “not fake it,” but she doesn’t know how. Nina is stunted in many ways: her abusive mother (Barbara Hershey: The Portrait of a Lady) treats her like a child, and Nina lives as one, surrounded by pink stuffed animals and ballerina music boxes in her bedroom. Nina lives with the denial of sensual pleasures, from purging to keep thin to being shocked when Leroy tells her to go home and masturbate as way of cutting loose: not shocked that he would say such a thing but shocked that she might do such a thing.
Much of where Nina goes when she does begin to do such things may well be nothing more than her own fantasizing about cutting loose. We know that her horrific visions of her own body transforming — growing webbed toes, spouting wings — are nothing more than hallucinations. What else may be as well? In the thoroughly gripping finale, does she even actually ever dance either the White Swan or the Black… or is it all merely her nightmare of perfection coming to pass? Portman (Brothers, The Other Boleyn Girl) so completely lives the performance that we’re inside her head looking out, and can never know for certain what’s real and what isn’t. That sort of delicious ambiguity — it works on many different levels, and works whether 10 percent is real, or 50 percent, or 100 percent — is a uncommon treat.
The script — by first-timers Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz, plus John McLaughlin (Man of the House) — pushes boundaries all over the place. Some might consider Leroy’s comment and other of his actions sexual harrassment, while others just the sort of shoves Nina needs to break free… and it’s possible they’re both at the same time. Aronofsky finds fascinating visual ways to draw us deeply into Nina’s troubled passion. The scene in which she mutilates a brand-new pair of ballet slippers, with the camera close in on her hands ripping the shoes apart, is provocative and riveting for what it says about both Nina and ballet: she isn’t destroying them out of anger or frustration, but merely breaking them in so they’ll be flexible enough to dance in… and hence it’s a perfect metaphor for what Nina does to herself.
Nina is one of the most challenging and most memorable characters I’ve seen at the movies in ages, and even after multiple viewings of the film, I haven’t quite exorcised her. I’m still wondering, even after that astonishing finale: What now? Whither Nina? I think we’ll all be wondering that — and talking about that — for a long time to come.