… alter egos …
In the ballet Swan Lake, the White Swan princess, Odette, good and truly loving, is opposed by Odile, the Black Swan, wild and destructive, both ideally played by the same dancer. What a role for a ballerina! And now, in this film, the Artistic Director of the New York City Ballet is looking to cast a new dancer for his new version of Swan Lake. Which soloist in the company will rise to star in this most coveted role? Nina (Portman) is in the running: the charismatic European impresario (Cassel) finds her dancing technically brilliant, great for the role of the White Swan, but lets her know she must loosen herself emotionally and sexually to fulfill the White Swan’s fascinating alter ego, the Black Swan.
How does a young woman, strung tight as a bow, loosen up emotionally and sexually — and when the stakes are so high? And when every other soloist in the company is after the part, too? And when the former star hates her for honing in on the part? And when a jealous rival smears the word “whore” in crude red lipstick letters across the mirror of the ladies’ room because the Artistic Director is attracted to her?
High stakes — and plenty of jitters even for a woman with a rock solid psychology — but Nina, we see, is pathologically tense and has a strong streak of self-destruction. What looks like a raw rash on her back is the result of compulsive scratching, particularly frightening on the highly scrutinized body of a dancer, with the premium on perfect beauty. She’s also prone to hallucinations, terrifying in themselves and something else that must be kept hidden, increasing her tension. How much her mother (Hershey) heightens her tension and how much she assuages it is never clear.
And, wonder of wonders, the Director chooses her for the role! This triumph of her life (and her mother never even made it out of the corps de ballet, hah!) intensifies the jealousy that surrounds Nina, as well as her own inner fears. Genuine rivalries blend into paranoia. The on and off sexual attentions of the Artistic Director excite her and confuse her.
Through it all there are gorgeous glimpses of ballet and Tchaikovsky’s passionate ballet music … AND glimpses of the battered toes of a dancer on points, and daily discipline of classes. Black Swan and White Swan: two sides of ballet, two sides of Odette, two sides of Nina.
Will she make it to towering stardom on opening night? Or will her hallucinatory terrors overwhelm? For how long can she hide her sore back? The questions burn as one watches the film. Their resolution is brilliant, though not totally believable. Portman is superb portraying, side by side, the magnificence of dance and psychological deterioration, in this Academy Award worthy performance.
The film would be greater if we understood more about the Artistic Director. What’s important about his “new version” of Swan Lake. What drives him? And — an intrusive question as you’re watching — why does he choose Nina when he has reservations about her dancing for the Black Swan? — he’s not that in love with her. We have to take his creativity on faith so he comes across as a suave, European version of “just another pretty face”, too simple a foil for Nina’s complexities.
Mila Kunis is terrific as the solo dancer with a tough, humorous personality opposite in all ways to Nina, another alter ego, as are all the women. Barbara Hershey, looking just like an older Portman, is convincing as Nina’s loving, over-protective mother (but given Nina’s self-destructive tendencies, is she too protective?). Winona Ryder is powerful as the enraged prima donna pushed aside for the new “little princess”. In keeping with the theme of alter egos set by the ballet, New York City plays a double role of its own, from expansive views of glamorous Lincoln Center to scenes of lonely, grafitti’d subway tunnels.
Black Swan is a compelling portrait of a woman caught between her demons and her potential for great achievement.