In retrospect, Black Swan is a simpler, more obvious, and more telegraphed movie than it first seems. The heroine dying at the end of the movie is really no surprise, after all -- it's not only a classic and tragic Hollywood ending, but it's an ending that mirrors Swan Lake, the Tchaikovsky ballet that anchors the movie, and the theme winding through countless mythological tales.
Yet there's something particularly propulsive about Black Swan's depiction of a ballerina's slide into an all-consuming anxiety. It's a movie in which the heroine oscillates between hallucination and reality, ending with one final lucid moment in which she makes a declaration that her final dance, and indeed her final offering to the world, is "perfect."
A lot of it, of course, has to do with Natalie Portman courting an Oscar with her embodiment of Nina Sayers. While the movie has its big, viscerally-felt moments, much of what makes Portman so effective in the role is her attention to the more subtle aspects of Nina's descent.
In her facial expressions and in the way she carries herself, she's able to convey the wearing duality of Nina's life -- one on hand, she's aware that she is aging, that she is slipping into the age in which she will no longer be able to dance; on the other hand, she still lives a kept life, a child's life, in which her mother keeps her on a strict schedule of eating, sleeping, and ultimately living.
Excellent performances by Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey underscore this duality -- Ryder plays Beth MacIntyre, the ballerina whose seemingly forced retirement opens the door for Nina, and Hershey plays the overbearing mother (who, like Beth, also danced and no longer does), who controls Nina's life inside the cramped apartment they share, and haunts it when she's out in the world. Without these two women present in the movie, living embodiments to remind that a career in ballet is particularly finite, it's not nearly as powerful.
When I saw the movie a few weeks ago, I was struck with how shaken up the audience was upon leaving the theater. A pair of clichés immediately came to mind for me -- the air sucked out of the room, a punch to the gut -- but the feeling was nonetheless disarming and, frankly, a little refreshing, given how it's the rare movie these days that fulfills the latent promise of true emotional experience.
Yet I think the audience's attachment to Nina, and the dismay in her premature death, isn't exclusively why the movie as exquisitely harrowing as it is. Seeds of that are planted when Nina transforms from diligent student to, in her being tapped for a star role, celebrity.
Nina has ambition to be the Swan Queen, and a consciousness of the attention that will come with it. Nina's mother expresses, as Nina makes the uneasy transition to celebrity, that it's too big a role. Nina, wanting to dance the role, must wear an uneasy crown of being watched, being known, being scrutinized with a higher degree of standards, and that's where her anxiety escalates.
In this current landscape of TMZ and Perez and all the others who feed on gossip, celebrity in 2010 means the sensation of always being watched. For Nina, her celebrity starts in earnest on a staircase at a party announcing Beth's retirement and Nina's ascendancy early in the movie -- a scene in which it's clear that Nina is unnerved by the eyes upon her.
The eyes are a returning trope in the movie -- eyes on her under red lights in the druggy nightclub scene, eyes in the scene where her mother's portraits strangely come to life and bear down upon Nina, eyes of the horrified theatergoers during Act 1 of the first and last Swan Lake performance in which Nina falls and the feeling of failure is palpable, and perhaps most poignantly, Nina's eyes meeting the row of posters outside the performance hall, her own face in multiples, with eyes reflecting a calm since lost, that she won't gain back until her final moments.
Most of us, of course, will never know life as a celebrity. We like to assume, even as we see celebrities subsumed by the anxiety of celebrity that Portman depicts so skillfully in the movie, that money provides a suitable buffer to combat the pressures of fame, and the Lindsey Lohans and Britney Spears of the world are how they are because of internal weakness rather than external pressure.
But Black Swan shows how consciousness of celebrity, and consciousness of being watched, can affect even those like Nina, whose life was about discipline and determination and achieving perfection alone in front of a mirror, well before it was about being watched. Certainly, Black Swan is not the first movie to explore the ravages of fame, but in this era in which the eyes on celebrities come more easily and more insistently than ever, it's poignant and perhaps even revelatory.