'Black Swan' Focuses on the Duality of Women's Lives

Actresses Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis at a promotional event.

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To call Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" a chick flick might be a misnomer, but the film confronts nearly every significant issue facing girls and women today in a way that few mainstream films dare. The story's simplicity (an up-and-coming ballet dancer earns the coveted main role of White Swan/Black Swan in a production of "Swan Lake") belies what's really going on: an internal/external struggle that touches on the duality of women's lives and asks what we're willing to sacrifice to achieve success.

Plot Summary

Nina Sayres (Natalie Portman) is a 20-something ballerina in a famous New York City company. She displays tremendous skill but almost none of the fiery passion that could elevate her from the corps de ballet to a featured dancer role. As the audience soon learns, she is controlled to a disturbing degree. Despite the glamor of her profession, she does little more than shuttle back and forth between home and work. "Home" is an apartment shared with her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey). The warren-like environment, with its dark halls and various closed doors, suggests repression, hidden secrets, and sealed-off emotions. Her bedroom is little-girl pink and chock full of stuffed animals. This speaks to her arrested development better than any narrative could, and her wardrobe of white, cream, pink, and other pale shades emphasizes her passive, unassuming personality.

An opportunity to break out of the pack and become a principal dancer arises when the company decides to perform "Swan Lake." The leading role of the White Swan/Black Swan is a part Nina — like every other ballet dancer before her — has dreamed of performing all her life. Although it's clear she has the skill and grace to play the innocent, virginal, and pure White Swan, it's doubtful she can embody the dark deception and commanding sexuality of the Black Swan — or so the company's demanding artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) believes until a heretofore unforeseen act on the part of Nina abruptly changes his mind.

When newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) barges into the dance studio and interrupts Nina's audition for Thomas at a crucial point, a triangle is established between the three that involves lust, passion, competition, manipulation, seduction, and possibly murder.

Adding to the drama, Thomas turns the introduction of Nina as the new principal dancer into an opportunity to kick Beth (Winona Ryder), the company's aging star, out the door by announcing her retirement.

Characters and Relationships

It's a perfect setup for director Aronofsky to weave various themes into the film, including the nature of female friendship and competition, the mother/daughter relationship, sexual harassment, lesbian relationships, the transition from girlhood to womanhood, the pursuit of perfection, aging and women, and female self-hatred.

Each relationship Nina is engaged in — with her mother, with Lily, with Thomas, and with Beth — mines these themes at several levels and twists the perspectives so completely it's not clear what's real and what's imagined.

In Erica, we see a mother who appears supportive but later reveals her animosity toward her daughter. Erica alternately cheers on Nina and attempts to sabotage her. She lives vicariously through Nina while resenting her achievements. She pushes Nina forward, even as she continually infantilizes her now-adult child.

In Lily, we see a friendship that's both liberating and destructive and an attraction that may be purely platonic or steeped in sexual overtones. Is Nina attracted to Lily because she admires the other dancer's wild child lifestyle and passion over perfection? Or is she afraid that Lily will supplant Nina in the company as Nina has supplanted Beth? Does Nina want to be Lily? Or does Lily represent what Nina would be like if she embraced both light and dark aspects of herself?

In Thomas, we see various facets: the positive mentor who believes Nina can outshine even Beth in the role, the ruthless artistic director bent on breaking Nina and molding her into what he wants, the sexual predator who harasses and seduces women to dominate and emotionally control them, and the manipulative boss who sees what his subordinates are up to — yet turns a blind eye.

In Beth, we see Nina's fascination with the company's fading female star played out against the backdrop of society's disdain for aging females. Eager to emulate Beth and feel what it's like to be in her shoes, Nina steals her lipstick, an act which foreshadows Nina "stealing" her role and her power. Nina's guilt over assuming the mantle of female power in the company and her constant feelings of inadequacy build until they erupt in an unnerving hospital scene that is rife with self-loathing and self-hatred. But is it Beth's actions or Nina's deep-seated feelings we witness on screen?

Good Girl/Bad Girl Themes in 'Black Swan'

Underlying these themes is the idea of perfection at any cost and the good girl/bad girl tug-of-war. It's a seesaw of wills that knocks Nina off-balance mentally, if not physically. The audience sees Nina physically mutilate herself, a cinematic echo of the real-world issue of cutting. This is a self-destructive behavior many females turn to in order to release feelings of pain, fear, and emptiness. The simple donning of a black camisole — the apotheosis of the transition from innocent to worldly — initiates Nina into a world where drinking, drugging, and hooking up with either sex is no big deal. And when Nina literally has to fight herself to play the Black Swan with conviction and passion, we see how great a sacrifice one woman is willing to make to achieve perfection.

Black Swan or White Swan?

The film's trailer makes no bones about the fact that Nina goes mad as she immerses herself in the role of a lifetime. It's a dark Gothic tale of suppression, betrayal, desire, guilt, and achievement. But at some level, it also addresses how women fear their own power and abilities, believing that if they fully exercise both, they risk obliterating and destroying those around them — including themselves. Can women still be good and kind and be successful, or must women always morph into those despised and hated Black Swans when they fiercely go after what they want? And can women live — or live with themselves — after that pinnacle is achieved?