Black Swan was one of the first films I watched that made me fall in love with movies. I was around 13 years old, and I absolutely loved it. It was scary and mysterious, and its themes of perfection were blunt enough to resonate with me at the time. Add onto that a performance for the ages by Natalie Portman, and young me was hooked. Revisiting it over half a decade later has completely changed my opinion. I still believe it to be a masterpiece, however one far more nuanced and darker than I initially thought. Aronofsky crafted a film that tears apart its own fabric to comment on perfection.
Fragility is a key theme in Black Swan. Ballet is an art form that predicates itself on fragility. Dancers balanced on the tips of their toes, delicately shuffling across the stage. The figure of the ballerina is like that of a porcelain doll. Tiny and delicate, but bursting with beauty. Nina Sayers is the embodiment of the stereotypical ballerina, soft spoken and small. She acts child-like, enveloping herself in a dreamy world of pastel pinks. Portman imbues Nina with a potent vulnerability that binds with her foundational grace. Nina is a ballerina for all times as she both hypnotizes with her skill and tempts with her beauty. Nina is a perfect version of this classical ballerina; however, this invites complications.
A ballerina is a dancer who is at the behest of various factors. They are slaves to a choreographer, a story, a composer, and a role. Nina is a character who finds herself pulled apart by these forces. The fragility of the ballerina makes them alluring to watch, but also to have. Nina is something so beautiful that people feel the need to control her. She is the idea of beauty and art, so fragile that you have a desire to protect it, but an even deeper desire to possess it. Thomas, Lily, and her mother are each bewitched by Nina’s grace, and each one makes the effort to keep it for themselves.
Cruelly, Nina’s natural talent is what triggers her collapse. Nina appears like a flash of light, and those around her are hungry to catch it. In their haste to keep her, they tear her apart. Thomas attempts to have her sexually, Lily wants her to be like her, and her mother wants her to succeed where she failed. Each one wants to keep Nina and imprint themselves upon her. Deep down, they want to be her, they want her beauty, her grace. They want to shave off their edges and become “perfect” like she is, to weightlessly move like she does, but they can’t. They never can be. So, they try another method. Don’t make themselves more like perfection, make perfection more like them.
Nina’s intense beauty is stifled. Nina Sayers, the perfect ballerina, cannot be replicated. She is then broken. If they can’t have her, nobody can. She is abused, physically, emotionally, and sexually, because she is incomprehensible. She soars so high that nobody can see her. And when they realize they cannot chase her anymore, they drag her back down. Nina’s demise is a crushing end, but it’s the only true ending she could’ve ever had. Her words “I was perfect” demonstrate her shattered identity. Only in death is she perfect, only now can everyone accept her perfection.
For years I saw Black Swan as a cautionary tale of a young woman who goes to the limit chasing the unattainable dream, but I don’t anymore. I see a young woman who is the unattainable dream. Lightning in a bottle, a light so beautiful you want nothing more than to see it, but it burns so bright that those who stare are blinded, so she is snuffed out. Jealousy and possession sink their hooks into Nina and yank in opposite directions. She is perfect to so many, and as they try to push that, her purity collapses.
Perfection in Black Swan is a tiny ballerina with a pink room and stuffed animals. When the world around her witnesses her remarkable beauty, they descended like vultures, tearing her into pieces. She was perfect, but now that she is in the hands of many, her perfection collapses in on itself and ceases to exist. Nina is beauty, a confounding sliver of grace who enchants all those near her with her delicate vulnerability. And in the chase for beauty, she is crushed. The drive to have this force of nature, to hold this beauty in both hands destroys Nina.
Black Swan is an immortal tragedy of talent that wasn’t made for this world. A cruel tale where humanity once again ravages beauty in its constant consumption. Nina is a story like Cobain, Mozart, and so many others, where we witness something so amazing that its destiny can only lie in tragedy.