Black Swan (2010; dir. Darren Aronofsky) shows the jealousy, competitiveness, self-destructiveness, and sacrifice that can underlie the creation of art.
The ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) has focused her entire life on becoming a successful ballerina. She is driven, both by her own ambitions, and those of her mother, who left the ballet at age 28 to give birth to her daughter. The mother is the kind of parent who relives her own failed career through the aspirations of her child. She both wants and doesn’t want her daughter to succeed. She recognizes the psychic damage the ballet is doing to her daughter, and while she is genuinely concerned and even takes action to try to protect her child, she also feels vindication, relief, at what she believes will be her daughter’s failure. Because she needs her daughter to rely on her, she infantilizes the girl, whose bedroom is decorated with stuffed animals. The mother is constantly painting pictures of her daughter that she has placed on the wall in her daughter’s room. Or are they really pictures of herself, dancing her daughter’s roles? A picture of herself is attached to the corner of her easel. She is one source of tension in her daughter.
Jealousy, competitiveness, envy are far more rife among artists than most would admit, and we see those forces at work among the members of the ballet troupe and their director. When the senior ballerina is forced out of the company, the others see the opportunity to take her place. They are genuinely pleased when one of their own wins a part or scores a success, and even more pleased when she fails. They regret her departure yet move immediately to fill her place. Nina is no different than the others. She is certain that others, specifically Lily (Mila Kunis), a new member of the troupe just arrived from California, are out to thwart her desire to dance the title role in Swan Lake. She imagines various plots Lily has concocted, and for the most part they are all in Nina’s head.
There is predation here. The Director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell) in trying to awaken passion in Nina, may or may not sexually exploit her, as he has apparently done with other members of the company. He hints to her that there are ways she can encourage him to give her the part she wants. And he knows he has made her love him—he uses her attraction to him as a way of tormenting her and compelling her to dance with passion. Nina’s mother implies something of the same may have happened to her.
Nina is the artist who merges her identity in the part she plays or wants to play. In this case that role is of the Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Nina so identifies with the part she wins, and that she is afraid of losing, that she begins to live out the role in her own life. The roles of the White Princess and Black Princess she is supposed to dance become contending aspects of her personality. The director tells her that although she can dance the White Swan to perfection, she lacks the emotion to dance the Black Swan. He drives her towards feeling that emotion.
About the dissolution of Nina’s personality and identity as the premier of the ballet approaches, Black Swan is narrated through Nina’s eyes. As her personality and identity dissolve, she hallucinates, imagines entire scenes, but because we experience them from her viewpoint, we’re late to realize how ill she has become, even as we experience some of the terror and confusion she feels. The difference between the real and what Nina believes is real is often unclear.
Visually this film is beautiful. But it is not a pleasure to watch. It is not a pleasure to witness a gifted personality’s destruction. The film shows the ballet as a craft of obsessive work, self-mutilation, pain, and suffering. The gliding, beautiful movements seen by the audience are moments of physical and emotional anguish for the dancers on stage. In this sense the beauty of the ballet is a created illusion in which the audience must believe, but which the dancer feels not through the grace of her movements but through the applause of her audience and of those whose praise she craves.
Among the various films about the ballet, from the The Red Shoes (1948) to The Turning Point (1977) and White Nights (1985) to Robert Altman’s The Company (2006), we have seen a number of varying perspectives, some romantic and some not, of this classical dance form. None of these films portrays the physical and emotional pain and destructiveness of the ballet more successfully than Black Swan.