The film opens with the prologue to Swan Lake, and pretty much tells the whole story in a few minutes - the white swan is engulfed by a dark, bestial figure. This is not going to end well.
The swan is ballerina Nina Sayers, a dancer in a New York ballet company experiencing some rough financial times and hoping to renew interest with a radical reinterpretation of the classic Swan Lake. The company's star, Beth MacIntyre, is retiring (not of her own volition, it seems) at the end of the season and the company's director wants a new dancer for the principal role as the Swan Queen. Nina wants the role badly, but it's a tough sell. She's technically as good a dancer as there is, but the role demands that she dance the part of the Black Swan, desire incarnate. Nina is drawn as tight and thin as a bowstring, all whispers and hesitancy, kept trimmed into arrested development by a deeply controlling, enmeshed mother. She's a grown woman with the bedroom of a 12-year-old, all stuffed animals and pink wallpaper. She's like some kind of hothouse flower or bonsai tree, built to specific purpose and not really good at thriving outside of very specific environments. She's not very worldly, and it becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that she is essentially prey in this situation. Everyone - from her mother to the company director to other dancers - is poised to take as much advantage of Nina as possible.
The defining image, then of this film: Nina breaking in a pair of toe shoes. Pink satin stitches ripped, laces burned, soles scuffed, scratched, broken. The shoes themselves share some uncomfortable similarities with footbinding, and it is the idea of constraint in the service of aesthetics, breaking something to bend it to a larger purpose, that runs through the movie like a single shrill chord under everything else. The pressure around dancing the role of the Swan Queen compresses Nina even further, and insecurity turns to suspicion, suspicion turns to paranoia, and paranoia starts to fray everything around the edges, until it becomes clear that we can't be sure how much of what's happening to Nina is actually happening.
But, in the end, the film doesn't build to as hysteric a pitch as I might have hoped. It's about Nina's disintegration, but just when you expect everything to go completely batshit insane (because that's the way it's been heading, in often surprising fashion), in the end it stops short. Just when you expect everything to collapse, it…doesn't, and then the credits roll. Behind-the-scenes features suggest that the film could have been more gruesome and nightmarish in some of the details than what we got, and that sort of bugs me. It's not that I wanted more gore or anything like that - everything leading up to the denouement suggested that what we were seeing was someone's life spiraling into chaos, and a lot of really uncomfortable (physically and psychologically) stuff made it in. This movie goes some interesting places for something that actually got nominated for Academy Awards, and I think that's why it bothers me. There was an opportunity here to really push the envelope, to embrace the horror of what's happening to Nina, to pay off the degree to which the tremendous pressure she's under has warped her view of reality, and the tools of the horror film are tailor-made for exactly that. If you want to show what a nightmare someone's life has become, make their life the stuff of nightmares.
It's oddly appropriate, since the biggest criticism leveled at Nina's performance of the Black Swan is that she doesn't cut loose - she's too formal, too restrained to achieve transcendence in her performance. Admittedly, my own criticism is at least partly ideological - this is one of those cases where one director's horror film becomes another's "thriller" or "drama", but I think it's an important distinction. Make no mistake, this is a beautifully constructed movie, with impeccably realized characters and a real eye for detail and unsettling imagery. Most bog-standard horror films tend to emphasize the unsettling imagery over things like strong visual style and fully developed characters, so seeing that there was an opportunity here to tell a scary story in masterful fashion, to demonstrate that horror can be art and art can be horrifying, that shrinking back at the very last moment made me a little sad. Just as the truth of Nina was compromised by everyone else's needs, so was her story.
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