Black Swan and Striving for Perfection

Darren Aronofsky, a name that is difficult to spell correctly when you’ve had more beers than you should and your hockey team just lost in game 7 of the playoffs, but moving on: you will be reading here about Black Swan, a movie that won an Oscar and 87 more awards from all-around the globe, and how it relates to me as someone with an acting diploma in her back pocket.

Sometimes it feels more like my acting diploma is in storage somewhere in Alaska but I think most artists feels that way. Nina, played by Natalie Portman, surely had no confidence in herself and that’s what pushed her over the cliff of her mental illness, to the point of no-return.

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Something that ticked me during the whole movie is how scared Nina is. She is terrified, always. Every second of the movie she spends in fear of not being enough, of not being perfect. She can’t look at her own reflection. Her self-loathing is what leads her to irrational thoughts and vivid hallucinations. I guess it ticked me because of how much I relate to her fear – this is why I almost quit acting, because I couldn’t deal with my own self-loathing and how it affected my art.

Nina scratches her skin raw, it’s her way of evacuating the stress out of her mind. With self-harm she calms down, but because of this habit she has to hide everyday from her over-bearing Mother, played by the brilliant Barbara Hershey. She blocks the door to the bathroom and tries to find privacy within her house but also within her mind. As soon as she gets the role of the Swan Queen, she cannot control the fear anymore and the illness she was locking away comes back around ten-fold.

The further along in the dance rehearsal we are, the more irrational she gets. Every time she sees her own reflection, she hallucinates. She is not perfect, her reflection reminds her that she has not attained the level of dancing ability she has always dreamed of. And this is when the temptation starts.

Thomas is the seductive French man who is choreographing the ballet, played by Vincent Cassel. He warns Nina that she will need to let loose to perfectly nail the Black Swan. But she is confined and shy, the reason being that if she ever let loose she would lose control. When he kisses her, something awakens in her. Suddenly, she knows what it is to feel again. She isn’t as confined anymore but she is still scared.

Nina is always dressed in white, pure as the first snow of the winter. But everywhere she looks temptation is wearing black. Lily, who just arrived from San Francisco, incarnated by Mila Kunis, has dark hair and is dressed to kill. From that point on, Nina will be obsessed with her, passionately hating her and wanting her at the same time. With every hallucination, Nina is pulled more and more to the darkness. She has been good for so long, she wants a taste of what perfection is to her, and her subconscious feels it could be found in the darkness.

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This quest for perfection is typical in many artists, myself included, but the difference lies in the boundaries Nina is pushing to get there. She listens to the directions given by Thomas, no matter how inappropriate they can be. She decides to go out with Lily and to get drunk, although she knows that she has an early rehearsal the next day. Her fellow ballet dancer lends her a black lacy top, and as soon as she puts it on, facing the mirror, she is almost fearless. When she comes back, she sees that Lily has crushed a pill in her drink but she will still finish it. She wants to take a walk on the wild side.

Her decline has started.

As stress builds up, the hallucinations are more frequent. Nina thinks that Lily is attempting to steal her spot, so she becomes even more paranoid. In the end, she will allow fear to consume her wholly, leaving her numb and insane. The movie ends on a tragic but beautiful note. Everything is white. She receives a standing ovation, and Thomas, Lily, everyone is proud of her. She’s proud of herself for the first time in her life.

But at what price? Is “perfect” art worth the pain and insanity? Nina believes so:

”I felt it.

…perfect.

It was perfect.”

By stabbing the Double, she killed her fear and her doubts. But all along the Double was within her. There is no perfection, only our idea of it and how far we are willing to go to attain this illusion. And if the destruction of our well-being for a mirage isn’t a terrifying concept, then I don’t know what is.

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