Swan Dive

I’m unsure of how to discuss Black Swan, or even my expectations of it, without possible spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Poster of Natalie Portman in tiara and black dress, one arm raised high and the other below her bathed in deep red behind the movie title but over the small print at bottom

Just about all of the essential ingredients of Black Swan show up right away, from the main character, Nina, to the central action, dance, to the recurring motif of mirrors and the intermittent diversions into fantasy and/or delusion.

Here’s the basic plot for those who haven’t seen the film — helmed by Darren Aronofsky, whose career spans such respected work as 1998’s π and 2008’s The Wrestler — but decided to read on: Nina Sayers is a ballerina chosen to play the lead in a prominent company’s new production of Swan Lake. The company’s previous star is being forcibly retired; Nina is the new model, just as she’s in many ways a younger incarnation of her controlling single mother, who pours her own frustrated dreams and neuroses into Nina. A recent transplant to the New York company from the opposite coast, Lily, is presented figuratively if not literally as Nina’s dark twin, a rival both like and unlike her in a parallel to the White Swan / Black Swan dichotomy of the ballet itself. Company director Thomas Leroy did not cast Nina without hesitation, as he feels she possesses the technical precision but not the passion necessary for the role, yet her very desperation apparently convinces him that she will rise to the occasion.

It’s almost impossible not to add “or die trying” to that last bit, reflexively, whether you’ve seen the movie or not, but I must admit that even the possibility of Black Swan going there didn’t occur to me until the moment came when it flirted with exactly that. What did occur to me was all sorts of stuff that ends up not actually being part of the film, and therein lies some of my disappointment with it.

I didn’t get to see Black Swan for several weeks into its local release, longer still after the promotional clips and initial reviews hit. Advance buzz seemed to suggest that there was at least a mystery about whether the film was a human-level psychodrama or an explicitly supernatural thriller, if not a strong implication of the latter. Did Nina really begin to sprout wings? Was Lily a manifestation of Nina’s subconscious? Did others even see Lily or was she, whether as a true spectre or a figment of Nina’s fevered mind, visible only to Nina in that sly cinematic way that films like The Sixth Sense reveal to us? I studiously avoided conversations and criticism that might give such secrets away.

Except that I needn’t have worried, because these tantalizing possibilities aren’t really presented by the movie after all. Whether this was a trick of the marketing or of my own misconceptions, I couldn’t help but feel that, no matter the conflicts and mounting tension that did exist, the elements of suspense I’d expected from Black Swan weren’t there. Oh, Nina is mentally unstable, eventually to an extreme degree — her sanity ending up in direct disproportion to her physical prowess on the stage. It’s pretty clear early on that Lily is flesh and blood, however, and that Nina herself, whose demanding chosen pursuit and home life with an obsessive parent are a dangerous mix, is the sole source of the film’s increasing excursions into Grand Guignol.

Natalie Portman deserves the acclaim she’s received. Her physical dedication alone is impressive, but she convincingly embodies all the aspects of Nina. Barbara Hershey as Nina’s creepily controlling mother, Winona Ryder as the company’s outgoing diva, Vincent Cassel as Thomas, and especially Mila Kunis as Lily, who fittingly has to play something of a dual role as Nina’s intimate hallucinogenic doppelganger and a casually external character whole unto herself, all turn in fine performances.

Aronofsky, his writers, and cinematographer Matthew Libatique, as much as they thrilled me with certain visual flourishes, are who let me down. I was distracted by the frequent in-your-face and over-the-shoulder traveling close-ups, which may have been intended to convey a constant, claustrophobic unease but simply looked silly. Nina’s descent into madness as she attempts to grow — artistically, sexually, personally — brought little reward for the darkness I had to endure. Black Swan was haunting, yes, and it’s true that I can’t know how I’d have experienced it if I hadn’t entered with a degree of unmet expectations, but I suspect that just like I do now I would feel that the camera was often awkward, the plot thin, and the calamitous arc of the main character sad without, basically, the rest of the film being creatively satisfying enough to overcome those debits. Despite the accomplished acting, Nina’s plight felt merely inevitable without quite being tragic in the emotional sense.

There is plenty in Black Swan to keep film students occupied, with its fractured imagery, the potential implications of the characters’ names, its many variations on doubles and duplicity. What the movie isn’t, much as I wanted it to be, is singularly great.

Related: Flow Rider Not So Frabjous Projections
Silent Treatment Death and the Maidens


  1. Being up here in the Tundra, I saw no promotions (other than the awesome Evil Orange Eyed Lady Who I Really Wish I Looked Like poster) and so I went in with no knowledge or expectations (to this the audience replies "...so, you entered into this pretty much as you do everything else, Joan?" You guys are jerks!). The story was kinda goofy but I loved the final dance scene! I enjoy colors and movement! *claps over her head and stamps feet* This same thing is what made me like Memoirs of a Geisha (that incredible Death Dance. I had to shush two ninnies during it. We were not amused.)
    It never occurred to me that Nina didn't actually die in the end (for I am a simple, simple girl) until I was at my physical therapist's and she asked me if I thought it was real or metaphorical ("Meta-whatical?" I asked with my pronounced brow furrowed)
    The thing I found the most unbelievable was her makeup change. As a woman who had been slathering her face for over 14 years - there is no (no way!) she was able to apply that amazing Bird Eyeshadow in 5 minutes. It's inconceivable! It ruined the whole movie for me. Becoming a bird, fine. Maybe killing people and dying, fine. But I draw the line at the makeup.

  2. Well said. My one sentence reaction upon seeing it was "I'm glad I saw it but I feel little compulsion to see it again."

    While there is plenty of technical, symbolic and thematic elements to unpack which would reward multiple viewings (as you mentioned) I found myself lacking a strong enough emotional connection to the main character to draw me back to the story in order to do that unpacking.

    I was also disappointed that, in the end, there were no "was it all a dream? Was Lily real? Was she dead all along? etc" questions, which would likely drive a desire for me to rewatch it.

    You are right though: the cast acted the hell out of it, and considering I knew Natalie Portman was sweeping up award after award for her performance long before I saw it, I was pleased to see she deserved them.

  3. the potential implications of the characters' names

    "La Niña"? I have some other ideas, but I'm curious to hear yours.

    We liked this all right; didn't love it, but kinda wanted to both before and after seeing it. If it had a little more meat on its bones (no pun intended) it could've been Oscar-worthy. If it pushed the camptastic elements a little more, it could've been a trashy-good classic. Instead it was just there to show off its potential. (The scene with the laughing portraits somehow reminded me of Gaiman & McKean's Mr. Punch. I know: random.)

    Portman was very good as the infantilized "sweet girl" (brrr) who nonetheless navigates a brutal career path and the equally harsh NYC subway. I agree that Kunis was quietly phenomenal, too, and like your point that she's playing both real-world Lily and Nina's fever-dream version of Lily.

    VW: imotor — What Apple will have us powering our cars with.