"Attack it! Attack it!"
Black Swan leaves nothing behind the scenes, tearing through its tale with rude ferocity. Life and art flirt gracelessly. They converge magnetically. Performance and reality at long last become one at the top of the steps and consummate, consummately:
"I was perfect"
For Nina, life doesn't imitate art. It reflects it. When she puts on her make up she puts it on her reflection. Nina wants to see an ideal in the mirror. The performers think that they are in control, that they shape it, exercising, stretching, purging. Yet isn't it the image that calls the shots?
People are her mirrors too, changing (but how much?) when she looks at them : a mother whose protective embrace will suffocate and destroy; a friend whose kindness and companionship is distorted by Nina's paranoia and instability. Nina doesn't have control, doesn't take charge until her fear and ambition reaches an operatic pitch only she can hear:
"It's my turn!"
She is a woman who never stopped being a girl. She is suggestible and changeable. She feels imperfect, like a child used to being called a Princess suddenly scolded. There is no love to break the spell or at least love that isn't cloying and conditional.
The first day of the new season and Lily bursts in late. From this moment Nina associates Lily with disruption and begins to view her as a usurper. Lily bursts everywhere - at work, at home, in her bed. With Lily now within it, Nina's unstable mind is at the point of breakdown. The lights of the studio shut down when she is stressed, far more serious than scattered horror beats. She doesn't know what is happening. People seem to invade her or are let in without realising ('Susie in the office' is always ready with information, a slang, a code). She hallucinates. Going out of her mind and growing out of her skin like the butterflies on her wall. She is "moulting", as Sheila O'Malley describes it, into adulthood and into a creature of pure imagination.
"What happened to my sweet girl?" "She's gone!"
Nina is being reborn. She is pushing against the people who manipulate her. The embryonic black swan makes its presence felt in the nightclub, the dull beat and pink haze approximating a womb. Taking a bath she comes gasping to the surface.
[The club scene recalls the opening "Jitterbug" from Mulholland Drive* in its heady colour, its dreaminess, the main characters set out from a background of dancers, silhouettes and images within silhouettes.]
The ballet gives her a character, a new shell into which to grow. She knows that ballet has eaten Beth, the former belle of the stage, and spat her out but she doesn't care. Art makes demands and not only on the body, twisting and cracking. Beth stabs herself with a nail file that could be a beak (as Ed Howard noted), declaring that she is "nothing". They live for ballet. It makes and takes their lives. Nina knows. But she wants to be something.
"I'm the Swan Queen. You're the one who never left the corps!"
Nina is uneasy around men and wary of her mother (always outside the door). She has no-one (her father is never mentioned) apart from Lily, whose uninhibited frankness disturbs her and excites her. The opportunity for rare friendship becomes mixed with nascent and bottled-up sexual feelings (sex is not the kernel of the film but one of the many aspects of Nina's slow-burning maturation/mutation). Something strong is growing out of her brittleness. The wicked rapture on her face as the feathers sprout is something else.
She is so weak, her white swan, that she can be smashed into tiny shards. The only problem is the white swan and the black swan are not the twins Odette and Odile, but the same person. Killing the white swan will kill them both. Suicide with a mirror's blade.
Nevertheless, they will briefly be released.
"...and, in death, finds freedom"
The final twenty minutes are appalling, sorrowful and disorienting. They are triumphant. Finally realising who she is and what she has done to herself, she calmly sits in her dressing room and puts on her make-up. Sadness and relief hiccup out of her and tranquility washes over her eyes. It is magical, as miraculous and spellbinding as her final transformation. By becoming lost in her role, she has found herself.
This is her crowning glory and her farewell. When we get to the end it feels, in retrospect, inevitable. Not predictable. It just had to be this way. There is an awesome feeling of catharsis. Like the ecstasy pill, Black Swan lasts a couple of hours, a perfect storm of extreme sensations (Nina's version of Edvard Munch's scream epitomises this).
She is whole. She is no longer fractured between childhood and adulthood or between potential and fulfilment. Jumping to the mat, a slow motion allows her, for a few seconds, to fly. The camera that stalked behind her head or whose gaze violated is now hers. And she is ready for her Close-Up.
*More often than not comparisons to other films are reductive rather than instructive. Black Swan is its own unique thing and yet I was reminded of All About Eve (the final mirror image especially) and the relationship of pleasure/pain between Norman Bates and his mother, revealed in detail in Psycho IV.