Black Swan is a most artful modern retelling of an old story, the conflict in each of us between the angelic and the primordial leading to the distinguishing human transcendent yearning for a perfect state, namely one perfectly beautiful. The movie is in the general tradition of Jekyll and Hyde, Metamorphosis, Equus, Beauty and the Beast, The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the guardian angel versus the devil, the ego and the id, the civilized primate and the naked ape, and many others.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), the ballerina of a famous New York company, is selected to play both the White and Black Swan in a radically revised Swan Lake stripped down to its essential conflict in these tumultuous times so far from Tchaikovsky’s day. The original score, story and choreography are shaped for our era.
The mistaken interpretation of this intense and haunting movie, one growing in the critics’ echo chamber, can be summed up by Voltaire’s famous observation, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Not here.
The real question is, which “perfect” is Black Swan about? The perfectly beautiful discoveries of mathematics as a human transcendence seem consonant with dreams of the ultimate engrossment of Strong Artificial Intelligence and its presently vague idea of a new consciousness, a next-stage sentience, “silicon consciousness.” But though Black Swan is contemporary with a vengeance, the “perfection” sought in it is the traditional one which assumes humans are ever to be of natural selection and that to be “perfect” is to war with one’s evolved natural self to sublimate the natural and break free to be supernatural. In that psychological war within Nina, the White Swan must vanquish the Black Swan. The Black Swan is primal, swampish, insistent, unrepressed and irremovable. So, Nina’s balletic vanquishing is strictly sublime suicide.
Yes, to attain the old ideal of human perfection, a most fleeting refuge for these unscriptural and irreligious times, and in the most sublime secular artistic expression of it, the ballet, is to live a grim paradox. To say it again, Nina Sayers must become suicidal for her White Swan to overcome her Black Swan, and crucially she must bravely confront and do in her Black Swan–do in her primal self and, because she is not purely angelic and cannot be, ultimately do in herself wholly, to bring in that very act her dancing to the perfection she supremely consciously wants to reach and may well at most achieve in performance as barely more than an intimation if indeed one which her audience thunderously understands and appreciates in a mysterious recognition that seems most human, happily so.
Black Swan is as deeply paradoxical a movie as you may see for some time.
Its art is superb. Darren Aronofsky, a youngster-director with a short resume, creates a Hitchcockian aura of dark, eerie, canny suspense. The camera stays as close to Nina most of the time as the mythical guardian angel is said to have shadowed Medieval man. Nina is all, everything, finally, in this remarkable movie–in the deepest sense there really isn’t anyone else in the story (nor, given the drama here, does there need to be)–and the most serious things about the human creature take up the story of Nina as we too follow her (Here Comes Everyone).
Aronofsky adapts several horror movie motifs gracefully and for artistic purposes never imagined by the schlockmeisters who contrived them. For instance, Nina’s ballet-trained legs morph for a horrifying instant into equine legs; and her toes, in another such moment, become webbed after which, horrified, she quickly slips on her long, square-toed ballerina shoes. How’s that for a central metaphor? It’s even better than another one: Nina cuts herself deliberately at times in the manner of the old self-flagellating monks: Beat the Devil, as they say. Here, though, we can and should be modern and substitute “Black Swan.”
One final thing to say: “Hallucination” has never been used any better in a movie, from The Woman in the Window through The Sixth Sense to A Beautiful Mind. Should you see Black Swan, you’ll appreciate how Aronofsky uses “hallucination” to have it both ways: put Nina in a fulsome world and yet make that whole world Nina: another paradox, one artistic, that must be seen to be appreciated.
There is considerably more, large and small, to appreciate in Black Swan. To use another ironic twist on a familiar saying, the devil (or, if you prefer, name it by the modern equivalents) is truly in the details.