Black Swan, more than anything else, is a film about unachievable goals. In a word, the pursuit of perfection. The screenplay does not exactly make this a secret, or even subtle. The movie practically begins and ends talking about Nina’s (Natalie Portman) desire to be absolutely perfect.
Perfection, as a goal of human development, is more than a bit tricky, and the striving for it can even lead to psychological disorders. Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (not to be confused with OCD), eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder all contain perfectionism as a symptom of a larger overall disorder. Perfectionism in itself is obviously not a negative, but the focus on the pursuit of it above other pursuits can be. This perfectionism can drive us to greatness and it can lead us into a downward spiral. In Nina’s case, it is probably a little bit of both.
Nina is a ballet dancer, one who has never been given a chance in a main role. She believes that this is due to her not being perfect enough. Even when told the opposite, she continually works on choreography after hours so she can know it backwards and forwards. This, of course, is helpful when she is performing, but according to her director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), it is not enough. She is missing something raw. Her pain at being judged is palpable when Thomas removes others from the room to deal with her lack of fire. There is no passion, no feeling to her dancing. Even when told this, her response is to ask for corrections, something she can do more perfectly. It is as if a ballet robot is performing, instead of a living, breathing, flushing human being. Despite Thomas’s wildly inappropriate behavior towards her, Nina still sees him as a genius. Due to his place in a position of power, nothing he does can be seen as wrong or untoward. She longs to be called his little princess, even if she doubts this well ever come to be.
It is interesting to note that Nina’s desire for perfection is completely internal. She holds herself to a different standard. This is not only limited to Thomas. Beth (Winona Ryder) is an aging performer who is being forced out due to her age. Regardless of her performance on stage, she is far from perfect in her personal life. She rages, she destroys property, she demands sex, and attempts suicide in a desperate plea for the attentions of Thomas. Despite this, Nina sees her as perfect, as someone to aspire to. This is the danger of hero worship in the siloed world of the arts. Nina ignores all of Beth’s destructive tendencies and sees her as a goal in terms of her accomplishments on stage. Nina wants to be Beth but would never live the messy life offstage that feeds Beth’s performance onstage. After all, if she were to ever truly give up control, she fears that she will end up like Nina, legs destroyed, unconscious in a hospital bed. And what could be worse for a woman who wants to perform as a dancer, to be incapacitated and left alone with her most dangerous thoughts?
Given her aspirations of perfection, it is no surprise that sex is a point of contention for Nina. Sex is messy, unhinged, and leaves her exposed. In a brief discussion about her love life with Thomas, Nina struggles with what to say. She is not accustomed to people being so direct with her and asking these personal questions. And with sex, especially for a young woman making her way in the company, there are no perfect, or even right, answers. Should she talk about her conquests and inhabit the Black Swan? Or should she appear pure and virginal like the Swan? Thomas wants her to be both as the Swan Queen, so Nina fidgets and averts her gaze, showing Thomas she has a long way to go before truly embracing the dichotomy of the Swan Queen. Even the idea of self-pleasure (albeit given as a homework assignment) is beyond Nina. Does this pleasure sully her idea of perfection? When she finally attempts this assignment, she is interrupted by a vision of her ever watchful mother (Barbara Hershey) sitting in the corner. This image of judgment shows how Nina feels about this act, and maybe sex in general. It is not a part of her image of perfection. She should not need it, all she needs is her art, if she could ever be just right.
Nina’s body, or at least her image of what is happening to it, is a clear example of her perfectionism leaking out in unhealthy ways. She, along with her mother, is overly concerned with the scratches on her back, which she may be doing to herself while unconscious. She also has visions of bits of skin peeling away and bleeding. Nina cannot help but pick away at these imperfections and make them infinitely worse, both in terms of pain and aesthetics. This consistent chipping away at her body is a perfect encapsulation of the cost of perfectionism. Regardless of the reality of these wounds, Nina believes it, and that is what matters. This perfection of body is ultimately an unachievable goal, and the more a person focuses on it, the further away from it they travel.
The most obvious threat to her perfection is her competition, or the dark side of herself, depending on your reading of the film. Lily (Mila Kunis) is the embodiment of the risks that Nina may want to take, but would never dare. She is what Thomas wants her to be, along with the pure perfection of the White Swan. Lily’s Black Swan attempts to drag Nina down into the depths of imperfection and sensuality. Lily flirts with strangers, devours a burger, uses illicit substances, is not under a mother’s thumb, and flaunts her sexuality to her advantage without regret. Nina travels with her on these roads and even pushes past her own boundaries, but only with the aid of darkness and the effects of ecstasy. The hidden nature of her imperfect acts allows her to experience the Black Swan. This, of course, culminates in not only a sexual act, but true separation from her overbearing mother. The sweet girl that Nina was has been overpowered and is seemingly replaced by the Black Swan, a creature of appetites and messy imperfection.
Of course, in the end, Nina reaches that perfection she seeks. She becomes both the White and Black Swan. She masters the emotion of the dual role. She is finally the little princess, according to Thomas. There is a beautiful expression of calm on her face as the film fades to white and the audience uproariously applauds. There’s just one small hitch in all of this happiness. Nina must give her very life to achieve this perfection. Her last words uttered, “I was perfect” reverberate through the images on screen, and it inspires both joy and pity. Perfection is something that can be grazed with our fingertips but never held on to for more than a moment. Nina gets her moment, and nothing else, ever again.