“You lost weight,” notes the costume fitter. She barely looks at the ballerina before her, but instead peers at the numbers on her measuring tape, ordering Nina (Natalie Portman) to expose still more quantifiable flesh. Nina obeys, and as the older woman walks off screen, new numbers in hand, she stands before a mirror, her head turned back to regard her own bony shoulders.
What Nina sees during this moment reconfirms her fate in Black Swan. More mirrors behind her reflection create the illusion of many Ninas, each fearful and judgmental. She’s lost weight, you know, because she’s struggling with her role as the Swan Queen in Swan Lake her first starring turn in the fictional New York company, where she’s labored in the chorus for years. For the moment he cast her, artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) has made clear she’s not up to the role. Whether this is a psychological ploy to provoke her to greatness or just cruelty, the effect is increasingly devastating. Nina, desperate to be “perfect,” as she says more than once, absorbs every criticism, seeing in herself failure after failure.
Nina’s collapse is familiar of course, and Darren Aronofsky’s film underscores the meta-references to other movies (notably, The Red Shoes, The Company, and the director’s The Wrestler), as well as the Tchaikovsky ballet per se: when Thomas announces his decision to put on the show, he admits Swan Lake has been “done to death, I know, but not like this: we strip it down and make it visceral and real.” Aside from what this suggests about his warped sense of his own abilities (“Give me more of that bite,” he urges her), Thomas’ description introduces the film’s simultaneous attention to bodies and fantasies—all signs of Nina’s earnest, interminable suffering.
Like Victoria Page or Randy the Ram, Nina feels a self-destructive mix of ambitions and limits. As with Randy, the camera tends to follow along behind her head, handheld and worrying as she walks long hallways or steps into the subway, but here, as the camera cuts to what she sees, her horror is palpable. When she spots kissy couples or a man who may or may not be jerking off across from her on the train (complete with wap-wap sound effect), Nina shrinks, looks away, and still can’t escape her own dire self-image. Thomas articulates her doubts, conveniently: even as he says she’s fully able to play the White Swan, Odette, he doubts she manage Odette, the black swan. “It’s a hard fucking job to dance both,” Thomas sneers, goading her. “Perfection is not just about control,” he observes, “It’s about letting go. Surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience.”
Trouble is, the film is mostly unsurprising. Save for Nina’s personal, surreal traumas, which begin with glimpses of a broken toenail and escalate quickly to close-ups as she peels the skin of her back or fingers. Her self-abuse is increasingly bloody and visceral, certainly, but unreal too, a sign of her instability and pathology. For if her distress is symptomatic of her profession, it is also hers, individually. Nina again and again appears a victim, not only of Thomas (“I’ve got a little homework assignment for you: go home and touch yourself”), but also of her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey) and a younger dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis).
At home, in their teeny apartment, Erica hovers, insisting Nina might not be good enough, at one moment offering cake she knows her daughter can’t eat and at another hiding in her bedroom, wailing as she peers at her own misshapen face in a mirror framed by dozens of self-portraits, none flattering. “You’ve been itching yourself again,” Erica complains, tending to wounds and then cutting Nina’s fingernails too closely: kissing the bloody tip, Erica looks as if she’s consuming Nina, or maybe another version of herself, more exquisite and less brutal.
At the studio, Nina’s rattled by Lily’s apparently natural gifts, her authenticity. “Watch the way she moves,” Thomas instructs his Swan Queen, “Imprecise but effortless: she’s not faking it.” Nina believes and doesn’t believe this story, as she begins to see in Lily another version of herself, an eager rival who wants to steal away her part (among other things). As Nina’s pathology unfolds, you see she has felt this way about Beth (Winona Ryder), Thomas’ previous muse, now too old and cast off. Nina has been taking totems from her dressing room (her lipstick, her cigarettes), a ritual of desire and absorption that can only leave her alone and empty.
As fervently as Nina takes Beth as her model, Thomas warns her against it: “Everything Beth does comes from with some dark impulse,” he asserts as they huddle together, a huge and ominous fountain bursting behind them. “I guess that’s what makes her so thrilling to watch, so dangerous, even perfect at times. But also, so damned destructive.” Nina hangs onto his every word, utterly distracted at the very moment he advises, “Don’t let yourself be distracted.”
It’s her “time,” he goes on to say, the cliché hanging in the air and so distracting from Nina’s teary agony (a cliché in its own right). The drama is thus self-conscious and cynical even as it’s grand and excessive. In the movie versions of the ballerina’s world, like the wrestler’s, the boxer’s or the stripper’s (all artists in their own forms), physical aching and emotional anguish are inseparable, and both shape nightmarish vision. Like her tormented predecessors, Nina spends long minutes staring into mirrors, seeing her monstrous self (selves), framed by her bad mom and compared incessantly to her frightening, lascivious, ecstasy-popping rival, also, you know, bad. No matter whether her tormenters are in her head: she, like Beth (or like Randy the Ram) seethes with frustration, finds herself in a “dark” place.
As much as Black Swan is about art and artists, greed and gifts, it is also about costs. Nina pays, repeatedly. But she’s also immersed in a recycled, easy-target world that never asks you to pay too.