After awaking from a dream in which she dances the part of the White Swan, ballerina Nina Sayers (Portman) returns to her company in the City only to learn that the director, Thomas Leroy (Cassel) will be auditioning dancers for the lead role in his re-invention of Swan Lake. Nina believes she could flourish in the role, but Thomas is concerned that she can’t “let go” enough to make the Black Swan a compelling, seductive figure. He worries she is too controlled, and not in touch with her emotions.
“Go ahead, jump! You'll be fine. Jump!”
|Reflection #1: Rehearsal.|
|Reflection #2: A sign of physical stress?|
|Reflection #3: The Black Swan emerges.|
|Reflection #4: Another sign of physical damage?|
|Reflection #5: A face in darkness.|
|Reflection #6: Failure.|
|Reflection #7: From white to black.|
|Finally, shattered reflection.|
|Intrusion #1: Back to the lion's den.|
|Intrusion #2: What are they laughing about?|
|Intrusion #3: Where's Mom?|
|Intrusion #4: About to take center stage.|
|Intrusion #5: The Black Swan reigns supreme.|
In other words, Nina constantly attempts to subsume Nina’s identity into her own. Nina lives and dances only so that Erica’s life and career are not failures and that so, vicariously at least, Erica receives the glory (if, again, reflected through the lens of her daughter). We see this relationship symbolized in the film through the use of color -- black (Erica) vs. white (Nina) -- and through the canny placement of certain props in the background. Notice that during one close-up of the pinched, drawn Erica, we can clearly view a white, gilded bird cage behind her. That cage, of course, is for the White Swan, for Nina.
And yet, by the same token, Erica is also terribly afraid of being eclipsed by Nina, and so her encouragement also boasts a terrible dark side. She can’t stand to see her daughter succeed where she failed. Whenever Nina shows the slightest sign of independence, Erica complains that she is no longer a little princess, no longer “her” Nina. There is no way, then, to please her and still establish a sense of self.
|Black Swan #1: Erica. Notice the gilded white cage behind her.|
|Black Swan #2: Beth. Everything about her comes from a dark impulse.|
|Black Swan #3: Lily, with the black tattoo.|
|And Black Swan #4: Nina.|
Given the stresses she endures through out the film, it’s no wonder that Nina’s dance moments on stage (and in rehearsal) are staged as though visual assaults; with hand-held urgency, dizzying spins and whirling turns. These movements reflect Nina’s stress and lack of control. She’s not just going on stage, she’s going into battle…into dedicated combat. Incidentally, and with apologies to lovers of theater, these sequences explain why, in a nutshell, film is inherently superior to the stage.
On stage, we must always view action from a certain physical distance, and with physical distance comes emotional distance too. But through formalist editing, film can show us the things we need to see -- at the distance we need to see them -- to compel us to feel and experience emotion. Our eyes can be directed to a montage, to distortions of time and space, to other factors that can’t easily be conveyed via the theatrical experience. It’s funny that some critics thought to call Black Swan theatrical, because it’s actually the absolute opposite of theatrical. Along with the supernatural, the film rips away any sense of artificiality, and lands us inside the psychic swoon of a mentally unstable dancer. We don't get the distance or theatrical restraint of the proscenium arch here. Instead we take a trip to the brink of madness.
|The stage can't put you this close.|
|Or show you this.|
|Dream or destiny? Death or apotheosis?|