"You could be brilliant, but you're a coward."
Director Darren Aronofsky intimately welcomes us into the world of ballet. Throughout, the camera follows its cast like a voyeur. The actors seem to float across the stage; we are so close, we can hear each determined footstep, every laboured breath. Like THE WRESTLER before it, we are invited into a realm that is unfamiliar to us. We are taken backstage, away from the lights and audience, the makeup and costumes. This is a truly gritty realm, where bodies are bruised, feet disfigured.
Natalie Portman has never been more beautiful however. More than any other, she has flawlessly transitioned from the child actor ranks to her profession's A-listers. Her first film was 1994's LEON (in North America, THE PROFESSIONAL). Sixteen years later, she somehow has not lost her innocence. She possesses this film like no other in her career. She is Nina, a woman obsessed about her craft. For years, she has stolen objects from her idol, Beth (Winona Ryder) as a way to get closer to her. She is also the most dedicated dancer in the company. She spends every morning stretching and posing. Her meals are regimented, her rest is monitored; every day patterns itself after the next. Nina is not without her demons however. We learn she has a history of self-mutilation, scratching mostly. To counteract this, her nails are constantly trimmed and filed, even wearing mittens to bed. Peculiar markings start to appear on her body--abrasions on her back and cuts on her fingers. At one point, a cuticle is picked at until an inch long piece of skin peels away like the outer layer of a fruit.
Nina is a grown-up child. Her pink wallpaper is adorned by pretty butterflies; the multitude of stuffed animals that surround her watch her like inanimate guard dogs. The master of her keep is her mother Erica, a highly possessive and exceptional Barbara Hersey. You get the feeling that Erica's heart is in the right place--she gave up her dream of dancing to give birth to her daughter. But the ideal cinematic mother she is not. She is covetous, more like Margaret White than Elaine Miller. If anything, SWAN acts as a PSA for parents on the hazards of pushing their children too far.
Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the director of the company is re-imagining the classic 'Swan Lake.' In it, a princess has been cursed to live her days as a swan until a prince can save her. But the prince falls for the wrong girl, and the princess kills herself. Nina's skill set is unmatched, but what she lacks is emotion. The lead ballerina is required for two roles; Nina is perfect for the white swan, but she moves without passion, without purpose. Traits that are needed for her darker winged counterpart.
To facilitate a reaction, Thomas aggressively pushes the virginal Nina sexually, kissing her suddenly and ordering her to masturbate at home. Further complicating things is the introduction of Lily (Mila Kunis), a rival West Coast dancer, into the production. A fascinating relationship appears between the two. Lily is envied and feared. She is everything Nina is not, living a life uninhibited, spending nights before shows at raves, taking psychedelic drugs. Ryder's appearance is brief but important. The former prima ballerina, Thomas uses Beth and then throws her away like a unwanted plaything, moving onto a younger version. This seems to be an endless cycle. Ryder's lack of screen time doesn't take away from the profoundness of her decline. It is a frightening thing to behold.
With only five films underneath his formidable belt, Aronofsky has succeeded once more in creating a perplexing, yet masterfully congruent parable. His talent lies in the ability to chronicle the faulty. SWAN is his greatest achievement thus far. Nina's madness is evident, but it's purposefully blurred as to when it arrived. She is a sultrier Jekyl and Hyde. On one side, a subservient pawn, pleasing her mother and Thomas. Nina slowly descends into madness, stopping at nothing to reach her potential. Challengers to her throne, a deteriorating lucidity; obstacles become inconsequential. After all, the show must go on. Swan evokes squirming in the most enjoyable way possible. It is a terrific psycho-erotic thrill ride. Nina spends the entirety in the search for perfection. It can be attained, but at what cost?