Black Swan

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I just want to be perfect.
Nina Sayers

Black Swan is a 2010 Darren Aronofsky film. Good Lord is it a Darren Aronofsky film.

After years of working in the background, Ballet dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) has the chance to become the star of her troupe in a production of Swan Lake. But competition emerges in Lily (Mila Kunis), who is charming the director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). Soon, things start getting weird.

Can essentially be described as a live-action Perfect Blue (or a live-action Princess Tutu, for that matter), and is every bit as good (and disturbing) as that implies.

Black Swan was well-received by critics, and became Aronofsky's highest-grossing movie. Natalie Portman's performance was especially praised, and she received an Academy Award for Best Actress among many other awards and nominations.

Not to be confused with the 1940s Tyrone Power film The Black Swan, Cygnus atratus, Nassim Nicholas Taleb's guide to randomness, Mercedes Lackey's book The Black Swan, the song from Thom Yorke's solo album The Eraser, or the Australian brand of dip.

Tropes used in Black Swan include:
  • Abusive Parents: Erica, of the babying-your-grown-daughter / forcing-your-daughter-to-fulfill-your-dreams kind. Most of it is verbal abuse and psychological torture, though how much of it is real and how much of it is Nina hallucinating is debatable.
  • Agony of the Feet: As mentioned below, there is a lot of attention paid to the damage ballerinas do to their feet. A particularly painful example is Nina splitting one of her big toenails down the middle.
  • Alpha Bitch: Veronica has shades of this.
  • Apologises a Lot: Nina, much to the annoyance of Thomas.
  • Arc Words:
    • "Lose yourself."
    • "Live a little."
    • "Perfect."
    • "Sweet girl"
    • "My Little Princess"
  • As You Know: Thomas describes the plot of Swan Lake to a roomful of ballerinas, and more importantly the audience. Just to be sure, Nina also describes it, to Tom in the club.
  • Ax Crazy: What one character does with a shard of a broken mirror during the climax.
  • Baleful Polymorph: In parallel with the plot of Swan Lake, Nina seems to think this is actually happening to her.
  • Becoming the Mask: Happens to Nina--Maybe. Too much in this movie depends on your interpretation to say for sure.
  • Beneath the Mask: Nina. It's made clear that she has a repressed side. Her normal self is represented by the "white swan". On the other hand her repressed side is represented by her black swan persona.
  • Berserk Button: Nina's constant apologizing seems to be this for Thomas.

Thomas: You could be brilliant, but you're a coward.
Nina: (hurt whisper) I'm sorry.
Thomas: Stop saying that! That's exactly what I'm talking about! Stop being so fucking weak!

  • Big Eater: Lily (who loves her hamburgers extra bloody), at least compared to Nina who's been starving herself.
  • Bittersweet Ending/Great Way to Go: Whether or not Nina died from her chest wound, she at least - in her own damaged mind - achieved perfection.

Thomas: Nina, what did you do?
Nina: I felt it. Perfect. I was perfect.

  • Black Bra and Panties: Lily, to go along with her Woman in Black motif.
  • Black Humor: The movie does have the occasional moment where one thinks "should I really be laughing at this?". There are many moments of Dead Baby Comedy stuck in the middle of horrific or dramatic scenes.
  • Blood Is Squicker in Water: Blood mysteriously drips into the bathtub over Nina's face as she submerges herself, right before her doppelgänger suddenly appears.
  • Body Horror: All over the place. Some is Truth in Television squick showing the physical toll that this sort of intense regimen can have on a dancer, and some is pure, David Cronenberg-style madness, with Baleful Polymorph and self-mutilation.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: Nina has a huge chest wound and may die.
  • Book Ends: Nina begins and ends the movie on a bed, with the same facial expression.
  • Break the Cutie: It's practically a live-action version of Perfect Blue. Did you honestly expect the protagonist not to be broken in sequentially more horrifying ways throughout the movie?
  • Broken Ace: Poor, poor Nina.
  • Broken Bird: Nina again. Sometimes literally... maybe.
    • Beth and possibly Erica, Nina's mother could count as this.
  • Casting Couch: It's implied that this is the norm for Thomas. Although, in an interesting twist, the impulsiveness and capriciousness that Nina shows when she resists his advances seems to make him more interested in promoting her.
  • Caught with Your Pants Down: While Nina is doing her homework, she rolls over and realizes that her mother is in the room with her. Only a partial example, because her mother was asleep.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • Why did you need a scene to establish that lights turn off late at night? To set up the "Night of Terror" sequence later.
    • The nail file.
    • Nina's rash, and her scratching.
    • Erica's paintings.
    • Lily's tattoo
    • Thomas' talk about the fact that Beth's self-destructive tendencies were what made her so compelling.
  • Coitus Uninterruptus: A squicky example: when Nina hallucinates Lily and Thomas having sex, Lily morphs into Nina's doppelgänger and looks right at her, smiling and laughing. Then Thomas morphs into Rothbart and looks right at Nina.
  • Color Coded for Your Convenience:
    • Mirroring the motifs of the ballet and the film, a picture of Lily and Nina eating together has both of them wearing similar outfits, except one is black and the other is white. This continues right up to the Real Life premier where Portman wore black and Kunis wore white.
    • Nina and her mother's apartment (especially her room) is brightly lit, sunny, and full of color, especially white and pink. Thomas' apartment is filled with blacks and grays, and the studio itself is mainly white and black with touches of gray. Nina herself always wears pink and white, but her palette becomes darker as the movie goes on.
    • On their night out itself, Nina puts on Lily's black top over her white top and then wears a grey sweatshirt over that. She then proceeds to wear a lot of grey for the rest of the movie. When Nina returns to the studio after the party scene, many of the palettes are swapped - characters that were wearing black are now wearing white, and vice versa.
  • Coming of Age Story: If you look at it the right way, the film is a fairly twisted version of this. Protagonist becoming more independent? Check. Getting rid of "childish things"? Check. Exploration of repressed sexuality? Check. Add some Mind Screw to the formula, just to keep things interesting, and voila.
    • It certainly is a kind of Coming of Age Story - even though Nina is a woman, she is immature; she is going through experiences that usually occur much earlier in a girls life (body image issues, coming to terms with sexuality) and are part of the difficult transition to adulthood. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that Nina seems to have been cosseted by her mother in a childish bedroom, being her mother's little girl... she is socially and sexually inexperienced... and she is very mentally ill.
  • Cool Big Sis: Lily
  • Cute and Psycho: Nina.
  • A Darker Me
  • A Date with Rosie Palms:
    • In an effort to get Nina to loosen up (or because he's a big pervert), Thomas tells Nina to go home and masturbate. Nina tries several times, but gets interrupted or does not have the enthusiasm.
    • A Dirty Old Man on the subway. Squick.
    • Possibly Nina's sex scene with Lily.
  • Deconstruction With Nina. On the idea of becoming your character.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Probably Nina. Possibly Lily.
  • Determinator: Nina tries to and actually pulls off playing her part after her hallucinations reach a climax. That, and her countless hours of practicing to the point where the pianist walks out on her.
  • Dies Wide Open: Nina... possibly. Also Lily, when Nina hallucinates that she killed her.
  • Dirty Old Man: A man on the subway, who was also the creepy old man on the subway in Pi.
  • Disappeared Dad: Nina's father is never seen. He's only mentioned indirectly; when discussing Thomas' possible romantic pursuit of Nina, Erica states "I don't want you to make the same mistake I did". He was/is most likely working in ballet, quite possibly even in a position similar to Thomas'.
  • Doppelganger
  • Driven to Suicide: The finale of "Swan Lake", and perhaps the fate of some characters in this film.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Downplayed Trope. Taking drugs certainly doesn't do her any good, but she was well on course for madness beforehand.
  • Excessive Evil Eyeshadow: The ballet company's interpretation of the black swan. The white swan in contrast only has a bit of white makeup.
  • Enemy Within: Nina is repressed and she seems to fear the other side of herself that the Black Swan represents and those fears begin to manifest in horrifying ways as she loses touch with reality.
  • Evil Counterpart: Lily might be this to Nina (that is the Black Swan to her White). Meanwhile, Nina frequently hallucinates a phantom doppelgänger that seems to mean her harm.
  • Extreme Doormat: Nina, in the beginning.
  • Facial Horror: The nail file...
  • Fade to White: An Aronofsky trademark.
  • False Friend: Nina sees Lily as this, but the truth is anyone's guess.
  • Fan Disservice:
    • The scene where Nina is masturbating is extraordinarily uncomfortable. Even the much-anticipated lesbian sex scene is designed to repel than titillate the audience. For some, the disservice came mostly from Nina's thinness; Natalie looks only slightly more robust than Christian Bale in The Machinist. There were some scenes that weren't even supposed to be uncomfortable in a movie made of uncomfortable moments, where the implication that Nina had an eating disorder was abundantly apparent.
    • There's also the old guy on the train who starts masturbating to Nina.
  • Faux Horror Film
  • Feathered Fiend: Rothbart is portrayed in the Swan Lake production as a half-human crow-like figure. While he isn't exactly frightening in real life, he's quite scary during Nina's hallucinations. And even the earliest trailer gave away Nina's feathers.
  • The Fettered / The Unfettered: Nina and Lily.
  • Fingore: To the extreme.
    • The crowning moment, as well as the hardest to watch scene in the film, is when Nina is at the opening season ceremony in the bathroom. She notices a hangnail on her middle finger and proceeds to pick at it. She then proceeds to peel it back all the way to her knuckle until it finally rips off. It's even worse than it sounds.
      • This scene was nominated for "Biggest Jaw Dropping Moment" at the MTV awards to give some idea of how bad it is.
    • Nina breaks her mother's fingers when she tries to barge into her room by shutting the door on them.
  • Foil: Nina to Lily.
  • Foot Focus: There's a lot of attention given to the feet, which is understandable since they're so important to ballet. That being said, we also see just how much ballerinas put their feet through. There's also a close-up of Nina's feet near the end in which they are becoming WEBBED.
  • Forceful Kiss: Thomas gives one to Nina after she comes to his office to ask for the part of the Swan Queen. Her biting him in response is what prompts him to give her the role. Later, when Nina is in full Black Swan mode, she surprises him by giving him a forced, passionate kiss in the stage wings.
  • Foreign Cuss Word: Despite being French, Thomas only speaks it when he's really mad. He speaks the language to some of the French dancers when he's unhappy with their work.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • At one point, Nina goes into her mother's painting gallery by herself. A painting's eyes move just for an instant...
    • Pay attention to the mirror right behind Nina during the exact same scene, and you will see that her mirror self is moving just a tad faster away from the door than her...
    • Nina's rash in a place that's commonly associated with wings.
    • The Icarus statue from the party scene.
  • Fragile Flower: There's a reason Thomas says Nina is perfect for Odette, the White Swan.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: Several times:
    • One of Nina's mother's paintings appears to move slightly in an early scene, foreshadowing the madness later.
    • At the club, when Nina and Lily are dancing, the butterflies from Nina's room briefly appear on the left side of the screen, as does the moon, reflecting the line about going "to the moon and back." At the same time, some barely noticeable face switching between Nina and Lily occurs, and Nina's Black Swan eye makeup appears for a split-second. Additionally, the guy that Nina is dancing with morphs into Rothbart several times (he also appears in the background in some frames), and at one point his face morphs into that of Thomas. Also, Nina's White Swan costume appears in a few frames, as does the Icarus statue. Plus, in several of the frames, the people in the background are often distorted and out-of-focus. As well as... loads of other surreal imagery. Some (but not all) of these moments can be viewed here.
    • Whenever Nina is enjoying a private moment with herself, THE SWANS ARE WATCHING--there's a black swan stuffed animal in her bedroom, visible when she touches herself in bed, and there's a white swan on the bathroom tile behind her head when she's in the bathtub. Not to mention all of the weird face-switches.
    • Lily has flowers tattooed onto her shoulders (lilies, in fact). During the scene in Nina's room, they suddenly change into swan wings.
    • There are a few occasions when different people suddenly turn into Nina's doppelgänger for a few seconds, something which can be hard to miss - an early example is the random passer-by near the beginning of the film. There's also Lily during the sex scene and during the earlier scene when she smokes with Nina in the ballet studio, Beth during the nail file scene, and four of the backup dancers during the actual performance of Swan Lake.
    • When Nina first visits Beth in the hospital and has a quick peek at her broken leg and stitched-up leg wound (the latter of which is only shown for about a second), she sees the wound with burst stitches and open and festering towards the bottom. (As seen in the Making-Of documentary, the wound was going to have maggots crawling around and in it, but this isn't shown in the finished film.)
  • French Jerk: Thomas ticks quite a few boxes. He might even be considered Mr. Fanservice, although in a twisted sort of way.
  • Genre Shift: Less of a shift than in most examples, but the movie does sway back and forth between being a psychological thriller and an overt horror story, although the balance between psychological thriller and horror tips more and more towards the horror end of the scale as the movie goes on.
  • Girls Love Stuffed Animals: As part of her downward spiral into madness Nina throws all of her stuffed animals in the trash.
  • Go Out with a Smile: Nina

I was perfect...

I just wanted to be perfect like you.

  • Imaginary Friend: Lily does exist (probably), but it's not clear if all of Nina's interactions with her actually happened.
  • The Ingenue: Deconstructed. Nina appears to be a straight example, at first, but it soon becomes clear that she's still deeply unhappy with her "good girl" life. Also, absolutely insane.
  • Ironic Echo:
    • "Sweet girl."
    • "My little princess."
    • "I want to be perfect."
  • Jerkass: Thomas. Veronica probably counts too, being bitchy and snooty towards Nina.
  • Jittercam
  • Jump Scare: All over the place, particularly in the scene where Beth is standing right behind Nina in the lobby after the party, the sudden appearance of Nina's evil doppelgänger during the bath scene and many times during the "Night of Terror" sequence. Often combined with Mirror Scares.
  • The Killer in Me: Again, possibly.
  • Kill the Cutie. Although it's not explicit.
  • Last-Note Nightmare: The piece of music featured over the ending credits, "A Swan Song (For Nina)" starts out sad, but becomes extremely dark and ominous part way through. It ends on a high-pitched screech, which is overlapped by the sound of wingbeats. The wingbeats aren't featured on the soundtrack album itself, but it's still pretty unsettling.
  • Lipstick Lesbian: Lily and Nina. Or is it?
  • Lost in Character: One possible interpretation of Nina trying so hard to be the Black Swan, is she utterly loses herself in the part.
  • Madonna-Whore Complex: Deconstructed, oh-so-much.
  • Man Bites Man: Thomas forcibly kisses Nina. She bites him. This prompts him to give her the White/Black Swan role.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Nina literally means "little girl" and is often used in diminutives of Russian names, showing how babied she is by Erica, as well as connecting her to Swan Lake, which was a Russian ballet. And when chanted by a crowd it sounds something like bird-noises. Her last name, Sayers, could be something of a Shout-Out too: Zelda Sayres, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, was an ambitious ballerina who came very close to making it big professionally, but who was also schizophrenic.
    • Lily is harder: It's similar sounding to Odile, the name of the Black Swan from Swan Lake. The name is also reminiscent of Lilith, infamous demon and seductress of the night. The Lily flower symbolizes purity and the color white, as well as death and resurrection- all of these are particularly appropriate at the end of the film. On a probably unintentional but still interesting note, "lily" is the translation of the word "yuri".
    • The domineering director is named Thomas Leroy; "Le Roy" means "the king" in French and "Thomas" means "twin".
  • Melodrama: Nina is very melodramatic, due to her utter obsession with her role, and her developing mental issues. Also counting to the fact that ballet is an extremely melodramatic lifestyle, one botched audition can really fuck up EVERYTHING.
  • Mind Screw: Big time. What's real, what's a hallucination, and what's a visual metaphor? In this movie, it's hard to tell, and increasingly it's hard to tell if there's even a difference. Did the movie even happen at all, or will Nina wake up screaming five minutes after the credits?
  • Mirror Scare: Mind Screw + Surreal Horror + Body Horror + hundreds of mirrors everywhere on sets such as a ballet studio, toilet, and dressing room are not a good combination for the fainthearted. If you pay attention, you'll notice that there are mirrors in practically every single shot of the movie. And you can never be sure that something isn't subtly wrong about what's in the mirror . . .
  • Ms. Fanservice: Lily embodies sex in everything she does.
  • My Beloved Smother: Nina's mother, Erica. Not so much by the end.

"It's our favorite!"

  • Mood Swinger: Erica...has some issues. Until Nina decides to take charge, that is.
  • Mood Whiplash: Several, but none more severe than when Nina is first doing her homework and rolls over to find her mother sleeping next to her.
  • No Antagonist: Lily and Thomas may make Nina nervous, but they have no real ill will towards her.
  • No OSHA Compliance: For the fall at the end of Swan Lake there's only a single mattress for Nina to fall roughly 10 feet onto.
    • Not to mention the apparent total failure of duty-of-care by Thomas for his principal dancer.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: Some of the TV spots for this film seem to portray it as some kind of romantic drama or a chick flick.
    • Others portray it as more of a typical horror movie instead of psychological horror, and overemphasize Lily's role.
  • Nightmare Face: Erica's paintings, when Nina hallucinates that they're yelling "SWEET GIRL!" at her over and over again.
  • Not Right in the Bed: Or is it?
  • Oh Crap: Nina wakes up and begins to...um...follow Thomas' instructions. Just as she nears her happy moment, she turns to her right...and sees her mother asleep in the chair. Needless to say, this kills the mood.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted. The director's name is Thomas. One of Lily's friends at the club is named Tom.
  • The Ophelia
  • The Perfectionist: Nina's Fatal Flaw.
  • Plot-Based Voice Cancellation: During the Night Of Terror an argument between Nina and Erica is drowned out by Nina's music box.
  • Prima Donna Director: Thomas.
  • Psychological Thriller
  • Really Gets Around: Lily seems to have no compunctions about casual, no-strings-attached sex. Assuming Nina isn't imagining the encounters.
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning:
    • In the transformation scenes during the "Night of Terror" sequence, starting when Nina plucks a feather from her back.
    • The final Black Swan makeup features terrifying red contacts. Visible on the poster, but even more startling in the film. This is exaggerated when she first dances with them on, with Portman's eyes widening considerably against an accompanying sound effect.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: The Black Swan is the red to the White Swan's blue.
  • Room Full of Crazy: Erica's room full of paintings.
  • Rule of Symbolism: All over the place. Exactly what the symbolism is in certain scenes depends on your interpretation, however.
  • Sanity Slippage: Judging from how prevalent this trope is in the plot, Black Swan should have been called Sanity Slippage: The Movie!
  • Screw Yourself: Possibly.
  • Serious Business: Swan Lake, of course. Lampshaded when "Tom and Jerry" can't even pretend to be interested.
  • Shadow Archetype: Lily to Nina.
  • Shout-Out: The transformation sequence is reminiscent of The Fly:
    • Nina first notices a rash on her right shoulder.
    • Then there's a lot of Fingore.
    • Then she pulls a small feather from her back.
    • Then she gains red eyes.
    • Then her knees start bending the other way.
  • Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Trailer: Winona Ryder (though she appears in the international trailer).
  • Slasher Smile: Evil Nina unleashes a horrifying one during the bath scene: Here. Later, after returning home from the club, Nina flashes this.
  • Spiritual Sequel: To The Wrestler, of all things. They begin similarly, both depict the tolls that Randy/Nina's chosen profession takes on their body, and they end with literally the same shot. Word of God says that they are "Two halves of the same film", with Professional Wrestling representing the lowest art, and Ballet representing the highest.
  • Split Personality: A part of Nina is an innocent and disciplined mommy's girl trying to do her best to make mommy proud while the other part is a sexually repressed 28-year-old woman who is still living with her mom inside a pink room with a lot of stuffed animals. When the dual nature of the two parts she plays in the production forces her to confront her own inner conflict, she might not be able to handle the psychological toll.
  • Spooky Painting: Erica paints these over and over and over again! Later, it gets worse.
  • Stage Mom: Erica.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Lily, maybe. And/or Nina. It's that sort of film.
  • Stepford Smiler: Nina, and to an extent, her mother as well.
  • The Stinger: Audio example: When the ending credits finish rolling, wingbeats can be heard.
  • Stocking Filler: Lily wears garters in her sex scene(?).
  • Surreal Horror
  • Swans-a-Swimming: Comes with the framing device.
  • Talent Double: Ballet dancer Sarah Lane was the "dance double" for Natalie Portman. Some issues have arisen from this.
  • Teacher-Student Romance: Lampshaded by Lily after Nina defends Thomas' Jerkass behavior.
  • Technician Versus Performer: An obvious case with Nina and Lily, respectively. This is consistently lampshaded in-film by Leroy. However, this gets massively deconstructed as Nina has no social life because all she does is ballet, and is explicitly told by Thomas that she needs to be both to play the Swan Queen.
  • Technicolor Eyes: On some close-ups, you can see that Thomas has central heterochromia.
  • That Woman Is Dead:

Erica: What happened to my sweet girl?
Nina: She's gone!

  • There Are No Therapists: You'd think someone watching Nina's behavior, or hell, Nina herself, might decide somewhere along the way that this girl needs a little help?
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: Nina has problems!
  • Trailers Always Spoil: Post-Oscar nom commercials show Nina's transformation.
    • Heck, even the first trailer for it showed Nina picking a feather from her skin, whilst staring at it with a crazed look in her eyes.
  • The Vamp: The Black Swan character embodies this trope. Nina might have to get in touch with her inner Vamp to pull off the role. Is Lily this trope naturally or is that just how Nina sees her?
  • Virgin Power: Averted. Nina's lack of sexual adventurousness and her inability to confront that part of her nature is a big part of her problems (though she tells Thomas she's not in fact a virgin, she may be too shy or ashamed to admit it).
  • Vomit Indiscretion Shot: Happens after Nina hallucinates Beth's sudden appearance in her kitchen. Earlier there are also a few discretion shots. There is also a subversion at one point when Nina retches over the toilet, but nothing comes up.
  • Well Done Daughter Girl: See Stage Mom above.
  • Woman in White/Woman in Black: Nina and Lily, respectively.Later, Lily becomes the Woman in White and Nina the Woman in Black.
  • You Need to Get Laid: The reason why Thomas assigns Nina "homework."