As if fortysomethings need any further memento mori that they’ll become dust sooner than they think, Natalie Portman joined their ranks earlier this month. Indeed, it has been more than a quarter-century since Portman’s on-screen debut. And what a stunning journey it’s been from ingenue to in-demand — from Jane Foster to Jackie Kennedy, Star Wars to stoner comedies, Malick to Mr. Magorium, precise impersonations of Madonna to piercing interrogations of the Madonna-whore complex, Beautiful Girls to Black Swan. It seems easy now, with years of hindsight, to feel like Portman’s stardom was never in doubt. But no talent like her should be taken for granted. If you believe her legendary Lonely Island-assisted freestyle, she could even kill your dog for fun, so don’t push her. What you want, Natalie? A career of might. What you need, Natalie? To always find new heights. This is Natalie’s Rap.
The film opens with a dream. A ballerina steps into the role of Odette, a princess trapped in the body of a swan who desires to be free, if only her true love can break the spell. In the end, it’s only in death that she finds her freedom. We watch her body manipulated in every direction, contorting into movements that suggest her struggle against certain dark, outside forces as much as those from within. The spell has been cast. Her transformation has begun.
Swan Lake has been told and retold for decades — a story already done to death in the ballet world alone about a girl put under a spell by the evil sorcerer Rothbart, who dooms her to stay a swan forever unless a handsome prince is smart enough (although they hardly ever are) to pledge his love to the right princess before time runs out. Princes are mostly useless, and Black Swan has no need for them. Or fairy tales, for that matter. Instead, this is the tale of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a ballerina who finds herself on the precipice of change. No prince, no evil sorcerer, no magical spells. It’s only her. The White Swan and the Black Swan.
Black Swan tells the story of a ballerina consumed by ambition and the role of a lifetime. When we first meet Nina, it’s hard to imagine she could embody both the White and the Black Swan, the very picture of her mother’s ‘Sweet Girl’ who makes herself smaller for those demanding more space. Bred by the society around her, this knee-jerk reaction for Nina likely starts with the mother (Barbara Hershey), a failed former dancer who blames having Nina for giving up her career and seems desperate to keep her twentysomething daughter as infantilized as possible in her childhood bedroom, with no real privacy or sense of self, in order to live through her. Nina’s self-image is already distorted; in that first scene on the subway, we see her reflection in the window, her face mostly obscured from view. The visual duality of Nina represents itself largely through mirrors in the film, a truth strategically hidden from us until her other self begins to surface.
Nina is both the protagonist and antagonist in her own story — a good girl with an edge that no one seems to see, which you could also say about Screen Queen Natalie Portman in the early stages of her career. Even after she shaved her head for V for Vendetta, her image as a Hollywood darling largely persisted right up until this film, shocking most audiences who just watched the girl from a bunch of romcoms and Star Wars masturbating in the bathtub and letting Mila Kunis go down on her. As if we didn’t already know we were dealing with themes of female repression, every time Nina is confronted with the topic of sex through most of the film, she can’t bring herself to openly discuss it, shying away even from the subject of her own body as ballet company director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) inappropriately encourages her to explore it. The two times that Nina tries to experiment with herself, she’s either interrupted by the horrifying realization of her mother sleeping next to her bed or disturbing reflections of herself in the water. Female sensuality has always been treated as taboo.
Nina isn’t comfortable in her own body, and we see her many times trying to shed its trappings, from picking at her fingers until she’s peeling back a layer of skin that isn’t there to the scratches on her shoulder that look like something is trying to claw its way out. When Nina meets Lily (Kunis), the new girl, Lily immediately becomes the newest object of Nina’s envy and growing curiosity. Lily is everything Nina isn’t. Cool, sexy and mysterious, she seems made for the more seductive role of the Black Swan. Much of the film centers around Nina’s unhealthy relationship with her mother, her obsession with the role of the Swan Queen and her contention with Lily, but the real struggle inevitably turns inward. All anybody sees in Nina is the White Swan while every distorted reflection that catches Nina’s eyes points to a woman in stages of evolution.
Mirrors are everywhere in the competitive world of ballet. Dancers use them to spot their mistakes and perfect their movements. For Nina, they’re symbolic of her rapidly fracturing mind. She’s the infant in Jacques Lacan’s “Mirror Stage” theory — her consciousness identifying in their dual reflection a realistic image versus an ideal, and her only desire is to become that ideal image. From the first time she sees Lily on the train and subconsciously tucks a strand of hair behind her ear in a perfect mimic of the other girl’s movement, Nina sees herself in her, a reflection made real. All she wants is to be perfect, but the more that Lily’s negative influence seeps into her life, the more the cracks in Nina’s mirror begin to splinter outward.
Ballerinas are constantly chasing perfection, sometimes even if it means destroying themselves to achieve it. The physical standards they’re held to are unreal, but the audience only ever sees the beautiful finished product. Nothing of the bruised feet stuffed into pointe shoes and other deformities that we see manifesting in Nina. The first real glimpse we get of Nina is of her toes, gnarled from years of dancing en pointe. Who would willingly do this to themselves except out of a deep and all-consuming love for the craft? As an art form, dance is a fantastic representation of the body’s physical limits when challenged. Ballet ravages the body over time. Likewise, dance as it has been used in horror is utterly captivating in its exaggerated exploration of the human body when those limits are met and then defied. It’s self-mutilation dialed up to 11, and Black Swan intends to make it as visceral and real as possible. The only thing more visceral than webbed feet and sprouting feathers is stabbing yourself with a shard of glass.
There are a lot of things about what Nina experiences that could boil down to psychosis. She shows plenty of compulsive behaviors and evidence of self-injury, not to mention the likelihood of an eating disorder and other issues. Portman does a fantastic job portraying the complexities of psychological illness. The actress has said many times that her own background in psychology at Harvard helped her get into Nina’s head the more the line between reality and hallucination started to blur for her. The sexual encounter with Lily that never really happened takes a weird turn; still on her back, Nina opens her eyes just in time to see her own face staring down at her, calling her “Sweet Girl” before putting a pillow over her head. Then there’s the question of whether or not she actually stabs Beth (Winona Ryder) in the hospital after a tearful confession that she just wanted to be perfect like her. Nina seems to be destroying all other versions of herself, even tearing down the grotesque drawings of her in her mother’s room, thus triggering a confrontation that ends with Nina watching in a mirror as she pulls black feathers out of her skin, legs bending backward at the knee like a swan before she passes out cold.
Dance through the lens of horror is a tool not explored often enough. The Red Shoes (1948), a film based on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1845 fairytale, tells the story of Vicky, a dancer very much like Nina, an overlooked talent who suddenly finds herself on the brink of stardom dancing the part of a girl with cursed red shoes that force her to dance to her death. Whether the ballerina’s own death was suicide or she was murdered by the red shoes on her feet when she jumped off a balcony, the story holds up the obsessive nature of a dancer getting lost in a role like a cautionary tale, and both films echo the mystery of whether ambition, delusion or supernatural forces were to blame. Did the red shoes really possess Vicky to jump? Were the changes in Nina merely a symptom of her own psychosis? Where one couldn’t choose between the man she loved and ballet, the other chose dance over life, and both meet a tragic fall.
In a scene of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018), Susie performs a dance for the witches while, in a separate room, another girl dies an excruciating death as she’s forced to involuntarily contort and mirror Susie’s movements — exaggerations of the already unnatural positions into which dancers must force themselves. Delusion is a lie that tells a truth. Is Lily’s role in Nina’s life simply a manifestation of Nina’s struggles with her own sense of self? A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, a cult classic of queer horror, is full of themes surrounding a closeted teen who, in one scene, expresses his teen angst (and maybe fear of discovery) with a dance sequence. In that Maypole scene during Midsommar, Dani gives in to her new life in the middle of the dance, shedding all toxic baggage of her former one. Likewise in 2019’s Us, Red’s ability to mirror her double’s performance of The Nutcracker first set her apart from the other Tethered and gave her the tools she needed to escape the underground. Dance can be used as a way of expressing what the character is unable to verbalize as much as it can be used to free oneself.
By putting a spotlight on the physical toll it takes, as well as the emotional demands to maintain impossible standards, Black Swan combines reality and fantasy into a nightmare you can’t tear your eyes away from — a dual examination of both body and psychological horror that feels transcendent as Nina’s dancing becomes a private battle within herself. When we watch ballerinas perform on a real stage, their movements can appear so effortless, an unattainable level of grace that feels otherworldly when it actually requires a level of strength and discipline that most can’t comprehend. Portman got a real taste of that, describing in one interview how her body paid the price over a year of training for the role — including calloused feet, toenails falling off and a dislocated rib. In ballet, beauty and pain often go hand in hand, but we don’t usually get to see all of the blood, sweat and sacrifice that goes into it. As Boris Lermontov says in The Red Shoes: “The great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by a great agony of body and spirit.” In dance, just as in life, one cannot exist without the other.
The dressing-room fight between Nina and Lily is short, brutal and utterly unforgettable. After threatening to take the role of the Black Swan from her, Nina again hallucinates her evil double in Lily and throws her against the mirror, shattering the barrier between them and stabbing her with a shard of broken glass, neck elongated like a swan’s and screaming, “It’s my turn!” with blood-red eyes. After destroying her ideal self, Nina is now free to take her place and dance the Black Swan as she was always meant to. No longer fighting against her darker impulses, Nina is left with no other choice but to give in to the seduction. “Sweet Girl” is gone.
Commanding the stage, Nina gives herself over to the role fully and lets herself go, smiling with satisfaction as the hallucination extends to the length of her arms erupting in scales and large, black wings springing forth as she takes her bow. Nina is constantly being manipulated and disempowered by the people around her to be who they want her to be. Her mother’s “Sweet Girl.” The director’s “Little Princess.” The overwhelming presence of her mirrored self haunting her every step. In one sense, this is a dancer driven to the edge of sanity for someone’s vision, but in another? A dancer who takes a swan dive off some scenery to find that perfection she’d been looking for in herself all along, escaping from the shackles of those trying to control her and her own crippling self-doubt. She’s finally free to embrace the parts of herself that have been suppressed for so long. Her sexuality, her autonomy. Even the kiss with Thomas at the end isn’t about him, it’s about Nina taking what she wants without apology, no longer fearful but filled with acceptance. Nina is neither the Odette from a glossed-over animated film or a Tchaikovsky original nor some darker version of herself. She’s both, as she always has been.
The moment Nina realizes she only stabbed herself is breathtaking to watch, thanks to Portman’s incredible emotional range. (When Natalie cries, I cry.) Pulling out the jagged piece of glass from her body, Nina’s face morphs into one of shock, devastation and, finally, acceptance. Her transformation into the Black Swan only comes after killing her imaginary rival — a heavy-handed metaphor for killing yourself in order to reach the height of artistic ability, but it works. Nina dances her final act while bleeding out, waving a tearful goodbye to the audience before Odette is meant to fall to her death, and Nina plummets to the mattress on the stage. As everyone crowds around her, she tells Thomas — in the same dreamy tone she had when recounting her dream at the beginning of the film to her mother — that she finally felt it. Perfect.
I was lucky enough to see a production of Swan Lake for a birthday one year, and I can confidently say that the way Portman commands every inch of her final moments as Nina Sayers is as powerful as the real thing. Because if Natalie Portman is anything, she’s the Real Thing. Over the course of the film, she transforms effortlessly from the fragile vulnerability of the White Swan to the dominance and ferocity of the Black Swan, qualities that Portman possesses herself in spades and wields to anchor the film to her will. You cannot look away from every single moment of Nina’s descent to meet her darker self. Not only did she win Best Actress at the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, but brazenly calling out Mila “Sweet Lips” Kunis in her acceptance speech maybe makes her the greatest actress and human of all time.
Black Swan is neither about true love’s promise to break a spell nor defeating an evil double. Lily was merely a vehicle for Nina to find the Black Swan within herself as a woman going through metamorphosis; taken with her more recent role in Annihilation, I think this might just be Portman’s best niche subgenre. Dancing the part of the Black Swan inevitably consumes Nina as she embraces her darker nature, killing herself for the thing that all ballerinas destroy themselves for in the pursuit of perfection. And isn’t that how it goes? Most of us are always in danger of killing ourselves to reach whatever it is we desire most. Despite this, the ending of the film feels like a triumph rather than a tragedy, just as Portman intended.
Swan Lake is a story that those of us who grew up on The Swan Princess misunderstood for years. There’s no handsome prince, no happy ending. Odette kills herself after her prince pledges his love to the wrong woman. But in explaining the ending to a clueless Sebastian Stan in the bar, Nina calls it beautiful. And you know? I agree with her. It isn’t a love story. It’s a horror story, and that’s what this film embraces. There’s beauty in horror, too. Black Swan invites you to push yourself beyond your limits to the point of self-destruction, using real-life horrors in the unpredictability of mental illness and the physical limits of the human body to then bend and twist what you think you know into a terrifying fantasy that will haunt you long after it’s over.
And in the end, it was perfect.