When I first saw Darren Aronofsky’s film, Natalie Portman’s acting shined, and the movie was terrific. But the nuances missed me entirely because I had no clue about the Swan Lake Ballet (which they are rehearsing for in the film). Fortunately, during the trip to Russia for the Football World Cup, I lucked out on the last few tickets for the Swan Lake Ballet in St. Petersburg. As my mind was getting blown by the phenomenal performances at the ballet, many of the film’s nuances also dawned upon me. Goosebumps! This article is dedicated to Russia, with love. Here’s the Black Swan explanation with details from the original ballet.
Let’s start with the ballet…
Swan Lake was composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreographed by Julius Reisinger in 1875. It has a simple story. An evil sorcerer, Rothbart, turns a princess, by the name Odette, into a swan. She is cursed to remain like that until she finds true love. Prince Siegfried, a carefree prince, is being forced by his mother to get married. He decides to go hunt swans to blow off some steam. At the swan lake, he takes aim but sees one of the swans transform into Odette, the Swan Queen (the White Swan), and falls in love with her. It becomes dawn, and she turns back into a swan. Next day, six princesses arrive for the prince to choose from. Rothbart enters in disguise with his daughter Odile (the Black Swan). Odile is transformed to look like Odette. Siegfried is tricked and pledges to marry Odile and then realizes what Rothbart has done. Siegfried hurries to the Swan Lake and apologizes to the Odette, but the curse cannot be undone now. Odette and Siegfried choose to die. This breaks the spell on the other swans, and Rothbart dies.
Over the years the ballet has seen a happy ending, like the one I happened to watch. Siegfried hurries to the Swan Lake and defeats Rothbart. The spell is broken, and everyone lives happily ever after.
While I watched the ballet, I noticed how the casting for the Black Swan was someone with a lot more oomph-factor than the White Swan. But on reading the cast listing, it turned out that both characters were played by the same ballerina. The difference in physicality and sensuality brought forward by her was extraordinary. Which brings us to the film, Black Swan.
Black Swan Plot Explanation
Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) is directing the ballet, and the movie sees a production that has an ending where only the White Swan dies. She jumps to her death. Over the century the standard practice for all productions has been to cast the same ballerina as the White and Black Swan. Thomas intends to do the same.
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a dancer in a New York Ballet company. She’s someone with severe mommy issues. Her mother is shown to be overly protective and controlling. That said her mother has given up a lot (apparently, a career as an artist) to raise Nina. It also seems that Nina may have been conceived because her mom was naive and somebody in the art field took advantage of her. Because of her mother, Nina has grown up to be a very delicate, sweet girl. It appears that she may have been bullied along these lines in her growing years. Nina’s mother puts her to sleep each night, and her room is filled with dolls. Nina is a dedicated dancer who is looking to achieve perfection. In short, she is exactly like the White Swan. The film begins with her dreaming about her playing the scene where Odette is cursed by Rothbart to becoming a swan. Notice how her gown turns into a short tutu, that’s the transformation.
Thomas has retired Beth (Winona Ryder) who was the prior ballerina playing the Swan Queen. The production company has not seen a lot of visitors, and Thomas wants to change things up. Beth, who Thomas calls his “Little Princess”, is upset because of this.
Lily (Mila Kunis) a ballerina from San Francisco who has come to join the group for this production. She’s carefree, speaks her mind and is more sensual.
Nina auditions for the role of the Swan Queen and Thomas tells her that if he were casting only the White Swan, it would be Nina. But he’s not, and he makes Nina perform the part of the Black Swan. She’s got excellent technique but seems to lack the ability to lose herself and seduce because of how she’s grown up. Lily enters the audition room, and this causes Nina to stumble. Thomas ends the audition. She goes back crying to her mother who consoles her and puts her to sleep. On the way back home Nina notices another woman in black. On approaching, she sees that it is herself who’s wearing a lot more self-confidence and sensuality. Nina is at the onset of a Dissociative Identity Disorder. She’s so acclimatized to seeing herself as a sweet, innocent person, the personality of a Black Swan is something she’s projecting as a different person.
She’s another ballerina who is looking to be cast as the Swan Queen. She’s shown to be feisty.
The next day Nina dolls herself up to have a word with Thomas and says that she has completed her practice of the Black Swan act. Thomas says he is not interested in technique and says that he’s given the part to Veronica (even though he prefers Nina). Nina thanks him and is about to leave. Thomas notes that Nina clearly came with the intention to change his mind, to try and seduce him, in the mildest sense of the word. Thomas wants Nina to lose herself, that is how she can become the Black Swan. Thomas forcefully kisses Nina and she bits him. Thomas is known to be a jerk but this moment makes him realize that Nina probably is the right choice. She heads out, and the results are soon put up. Innocently, thinking that Veronica as made the part she congratulates her. Veronica is pissed off because she thinks Nina is being a b*tch. Nina realizes that she’s got the part of the Swan Queen. She’s delighted and calls her mother to say this. Many assume that Nina must have slept with Thomas to get the part. She finds “wh*re” written on the bathroom mirror.
Nina has been developing a rash on her back. This is not a rash. Nina scratches herself at that location on her shoulder when she’s under a lot of pressure. We see it bleeding a little when she’s taking a bath. Her mother comes in with a cake to celebrate. Nina, avoiding the calories, says no. Her mother gets annoyed, and so Nina has a little. The scene again shows the kind of control her mother has on Nina. It’s not just the rash, over the rehearsals that follow, Nina imagines wounds on her finger and ripping off her skin. Things that never really happen. Thomas tells Nina that he saw a flash of the Black Swan in her and he wants her to give him more of that bite.
There is a banquet thrown to announce the retirement of Beth, and Nina the new Swan Queen. Thomas toasts to Beth calling her “My Sweet Princess”. Beth is terribly annoyed for being patronized and leaves. At the restroom, Nina meets Lily who seems friendly. Later, Beth meets Nina and asks her what she’s done to get the role. Beth says that Thomas always considered Nina to be a frigid little girl. Looks like that bite really changed things up. Nina leaves with Thomas to his place. At his home, Thomas asks her about her previous boyfriend, if she’s a virgin, if she enjoys making love, etc. He asks her to go home and touch herself as a homework assignment. He wants Nina to connect with her sensuality which is crucial for the role.
The rash, the habit, the weeping mother
Nina sees her mother crying in front of her art. This is because she hasn’t been able to do anything with a gift she feels she had. At home, Nina’s mother notices her rash and says that she’s been scratching it again. Her mother knows about the scratching habit that Nina has. She attributes it to the pressure of the role. Her mother is not wrong about this. She cuts Nina’s nails. Nina wakes up the next morning and begins touching herself but soon notices that her mom is on a chair sleeping. Looks like she has been there all night to keep an eye on Nina.
After the party, Beth walks into the road and gets hit by a car. Thomas explains how everything Beth does comes from some dark impulse. Which is what made her so thrilling to watch. But the same thing also makes her self-destructive. This dialogue here is pretty much laying out what is going to happen to Nina.
The rehearsals continue
Thomas still finds Nina to be stiff, and not letting go. He even asks the guy she’s dancing with if he’d sleep with Nina, who scoffs. Thomas sends everyone off and continues the rehearsal alone with Nina. He seduces Nina asking her to respond to his touch. She does. Thomas tells her that this was him seducing her, but it needs to be the other way around. Lily meets Nina later and sees her crying. Lily explain how Thomas is a jerk, but Nina feels he’s brilliant. It also appears that Nina is infatuated with Thomas. Lily tells Thomas to go easy on Nina. Next day, Thomas is making Nina repeat her act without any corrections. He’s annoyed that Nina is so weak. Thomas wants her to be strong and fight. He mentions that Lily said to go easy on Nina.
Nina confronts Lily and tells her that she shouldn’t have said anything to Thomas. At home, Nina’s mother is ensuring that Thomas is not taking undue advantage of her sweet daughter, that Nina doesn’t make the same mistake she did. Lily comes by to meet Nina. The mother decides that Nina doesn’t have to meet anyone and tells Lily that Nina is not home. Nina retaliates and goes to the door. Lily apologizes about talking to Thomas and wants to make it up by taking her out. Nina’s mother intrudes by calling her back in for dinner. Nina disobeys and leaves with Lily.
Lilly and Nina talk about how Thomas calls Beth his “Little Princess”. Lily thinks that he would call Nina that soon. Nina feels that it was only for Beth. Nina is naive. Lily buys drinks and meets with some guys. Nina is hesitant but indulges finally. Lily also spikes their drink so that they can have a little fun. I believe Lily is not trying to sabotage Nina. This is who Lily is. Nina let’s go and has fun. After the club, Nina heads home alone. Yes, Lily is not with her. This is purely her imagination. Nina has a fight with her mother and shuts herself in her room. According to Nina, she’s with Lily, and the two make out. In reality, Nina is just touching herself. We can see black wings on Lily’s back as a tattoo. This represents how Nina has projected her alternate persona on to Lily (who’s not in the room). For a short moment we can see how Lily’s face is a blend of hers and Nina’s.
Lily and Nina
Nina wakes up late and rushes to the rehearsal. Her mother clearly does not want Nina to be part of the ballet anymore as it is emotionally harming her. Thomas has asked Lily to temporarily step in and work the Swan Queen role as Nina was late. Basically, Lily is Nina’s understudy. Nina is annoyed and asks why Lily didn’t wake her up. Lily is genuinely humoured that Nina fantasized about being with her. Lily is not an evil person, she’s just frank. It’s Nina who’s being paranoid. Later, Nina throws away all her dolls at home and breaks the ballerina toy. She doesn’t want to feel or be treated like a child anymore. She imagines her mirror reflection scratching herself. We can see that by now the wound has healed. That the rash is only in her mind.
After rehearsals, Nina is sent for getting her measurements for the Swan Queen costumes. Nina realizes that Lily is also getting measured for the same. Lily explains that she is just an alternative and that it was only just in case. Now it could be that Thomas is leveraging Nina’s insecurities to become the Black Swan. That making Lily her alternative Nina will fight harder. Thomas had seen how Nina first came to meet him dolled up when it looked like she might not get the role. This pure speculation. Nina begs Thomas to make someone else her alternate as she feels Lily is trying to steal her role. Thomas assures her that she had her breakthrough and the opening day she will shine. He also says “Just give a great performance and you won’t have to worry about Lily or anybody else.” – this is why I suspect Thomas might be pushing Nina to go an outstanding job. That said, let’s not undermine Lily. She’s good enough to play the Swan Queen, else Thomas wouldn’t pick her as the alternate.
Later after practice, she sees someone in the shadows. She imagines Rothbart making out with Veronica. She goes to meet Beth, and Beth starts stabbing herself with a nail file. Soon Beth’s face becomes Nina’s. Nina is pretty much losing her mind and is seeing herself as projections. She goes home and sees visions of a bleeding Beth, and the artwork start talking and laughing at her. Her mother tries to calm Nina down, but she shuts her self and slams the door. Nina hallucinates feathers coming out of her rash, imagines her legs breaking at the knees (to look like swan legs), and eventually falls down knocking herself unconscious. Nina wakes up with her mother on the side comforting her saying that she was scratching all night. Her mother tells her that he’s called the theatre to inform them that Nina is sick and that she can’t make it. Nina becomes furious and crushes her mother hands to get to the doorknob and leaves.
The show must go on
She heads to the theatre and Lily is surprised Nina is in given she was sick. Thomas tells Nina that he’s already asked Lily to do the show. Nina is now calm and composed. She asks Thomas if he’s made an announcement, and that he doesn’t need another controversy after Beth. Thomas is happy to see Nina this confident. He tells her that the only person standing in her way is herself.
The show begins. Nina is highly distracted and as a result, gets dropped by her partner. Thomas is furious. Back in the changing room, Nina’s insecurities cause her to imagine Lily sitting and preparing for the Black Swan. Yes, Lily is not actually here. Imaginary-Lily suggests that she should do the Black Swan as Nina will not be able to. Imaginary-Lily then transforms into a Dark-Nina. It’s basically a battle between the personalities of the Black-Swan and White-Swan in Nina’s head. The two Nina’s fight and cause the mirror on the wall to break. Nina stabs her doppelganger who turns back into Imaginary-Lily and dies. Nina hides the dead body, gets dressed for her Black Swan act and exits. The reality here, unfortunately, is that the battle is not in Nina’s mind alone. She bashes herself against the mirror and eventually stabs herself. But believing that she’s killed Lily, Nina leaves with her stab wound to perform the Black Swan.
We see how Nina’s skin freckles and she begins transforming into a Black Swan as she dances flawlessly, mesmerizing the crowd. Her alternate personality takes over, and her metamorphosis is complete. The White Swan has become the Black Swan. Before Thomas can say anything, she kisses him passionately. She completes her act, and we are shown her shadow to be a black swan. The audience is left cheering loudly.
Nina goes back to her room to notice that there is blood coming from where she has apparently hidden Lily’s dead body. She puts a towel to stop the blood. We can see that there is no rash on her back, confirming these wounds are in her mind. Suddenly, there is a knock on the door, and it turns out to be the real Lily who has come to congratulate Nina on the fantastic performance. Nina is confused and checks for the body, there is none. Then she finds a broken mirror stabbed in her stomach, and takes it out. With the wound, Nina goes on to perform her last act. As expected she nails it and is loved by the audience. The White Swan falls to her death. We are shown her mother who looks on proudly, fearing for her daughter. As this happens, her wound grows, and she begins to bleed more. Thomas is overjoyed with Nina’s performance, and he says “My little princess, I always knew you had it in you.” Just like Beth was, Nina now is his little princess. Which also means that one day she will be retired because of a younger ballerina. Nevertheless, Nina is in a trance. She’s bleeding to death. Thomas eventually notices the blood and calls for help. Nina doesn’t care, this is her transcendence. All she has left to say is that she felt it, that it was perfect. What she wanted to achieve she has, but at the cost of her very life.
Does Nina die?
Well, does it matter? Nina, the sweet girl, is gone for sure. Even if she does survive, she’s going to be a completely different person.