"We open ... with Swan Lake. Done to death, I know. But not like this."
In a film steeped in doppelgängers, ballet director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) may as well be channeling film director Darren Aronofsky as he makes this introductory—and slyly foreshadowing—pronouncement to his company in Black Swan. Indeed, the contentious relationship between Leroy and his new prima ballerina, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), embodies the symbiotic, sometimes parasitic bond between artist and muse ... or a filmmaker and his leading actress.
Yet that allegory is but the amuse-bouche to a thematic feast. Set against the backdrop of a New York City production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, Black Swan recounts the ballet's plot through a contemporary idiom using the same "story within a story" format found in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's The Red Shoes. The film opens with a literal rendering of the ballet's prologue, during which Rothbart, the evil sorcerer of the tale, casts a spell that turns a princess into a virtuous white swan.
The scene cuts directly to Nina waking in the apartment she shares with her domineering mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey). Nina is one of several ballerinas auditioning for the role of the Swan Queen, but while Leroy is confident Nina can capture the innocent grace of the White Swan, he worries she can't exude the sensuality needed to perform her carnal twin, the Black Swan. An uneasy relationship develops between the seemingly chaste Nina and her licentious understudy, Lily (Mila Kunis). Their rivalry expands into a twisted acquaintance as Nina—prodded by Leroy, curiosity and internal demons—taps into her dark side and confronts the duality of her damaged psyche.
Black Swan exhibits the physical and emotional toll performers often suffer in pursuit of their art, a trait it shares with Aronofsky's The Wrestler and one undoubtedly endured by Portman, who trained for months in preparation for this Oscar-worthy tour de force. This concept of destruction as a precursor to creation is revisited throughout the film, whether it's Nina's ascension at the expense of boozy, aging marquee ballerina Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder, her very presence symbolic) or her forceful defiance of her maternal figure in order to unlock the sexual awakening needed along her path to artistic achievement.
Moreover, implications of Nina's sexual abuse and self-mutilation serve as the backdrop for her compulsion to attain creative perfection. Aronofsky juxtaposes sexual maturation, particularly in a male-dominated culture, with ballet's concurrent idealization and objectification of femininity. Shadows of Roman Polanski's Repulsion are cast throughout, such as when Nina finally awakens her Black Swan, it is only with the aid of sapphic stimulation.
There are parallels between Erica and Piper Laurie's Mommy Dearest in Carrie, another film that addresses menstrual angst. As Nina prepares for the final pas de deux, a blossoming, crimson flower conspicuously forms near her lower abdomen. "I felt it," she whispers as the final chord sounds, a smile of ecstasy creeping across her face. The crowd roars its approval as they—like we—demand more, no matter the price.