"Striving for perfection is often confused with the quest for fulfillment: we think that if we can become perfect or create perfect things or situations, we will be happy," Michael Gellert has written. There is a certain grandiosity that comes with this obsession as well as low self-esteem. We dread failure and are convinced that missing the mark or coming in second confirms our worst fears about ourselves. The anxiety, stress, and tension caused by perfectionism is incalculable. Such is the case with Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a 28-year-old ballet dancer who is known and respected for her rigorous discipline and commitment to this art form. She is willing to endure severe pain in order to succeed, even if it entails cutting herself to spur greater achievement and acclaim.
Nina lives with her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), who gave up her career as a ballerina to give birth to Nina. Erica is a controlling woman who wants to keep her talented daughter dependent. Each night she rubs Nina's back and plays a child’s music box for her. This ballerina has no life outside of dance and that is just fine with her mother.
Nina desperately wants to be chosen for the lead in a new production of Swan Lake which director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) wants to make into a daring drama about the transformation of a virgin into an evil twin. He is impressed with Nina's beauty and elegance as the White Swan, but has doubts that she can pull off the seductive sensuality of the Black Swan. Nonetheless, Leroy gives her the role and decides to use every hedonistic trick he can think of to bring out Nina's dark impulses. He previously worked his magic with Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), his "Little Princess," who is now a thoroughly messed-up and self-destructive woman.
It is fascinating to watch Nina try to meet the high bar set by Leroy as she struggles with her mother; tries to stir her virginal flesh; fantasizes what it would be like to have sex with a another woman; and competes fiercely with Lily (Mila Kunis), a new member of the ballet company who wins the director's eye with her sensuality and spontaneity. Although she sees Lily as a rival, Nina spends an evening out on the town with her and experiences things she has never felt before.
Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler) directs this probe of the scary dimensions of perfectionism and unbridled ambition in the life of a frigid ballerina. Although many of Nina's hallucinations are both gruesome and irritating to watch, they do capture and convey the breadth and depth of her self-destructiveness as she moves closer and closer to her debut as the lead in Swan Lake. Natalie Portman's Academy Award caliber performance carries the drama and showcases her talent, beauty, and willingness to explore the darker dimensions of human nature. Vincent Cassel is right on the mark with his convincing depiction of Leroy's Svengali-like power over both Nina and Beth.
Black Swan is a mesmerizing film about the dangers of perfectionism. M.J. Ryan in her book Giving Thanks shares a spiritual perspective on this malaise:
"Because perfectionism is born of a sense of inadequacy, a lack, an attitude of gratitude counteracts it by tapping into the experience of abundance. Gratitude makes our world feel complete and right. When we feel the fullness of gratitude, we accept life just as it is; however messy, complicated and drawn-outside-the-lines that may be."
Special features on the DVD include "Metamorphosis: a behind-the-scenes documentary with director Darren Aronofsky."