Review: The “Swan” Song of a Perfectionist Drags Viewers into a Surreal Nightmare

As a ballerina, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) strive for perfection proves deadly.

Liv Ullman was a “”girl interrupted” onstage in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, but Natalie Portman picks up where Ullman left off starring in Darren Aronofsky’s modernization of the classic Swan Lake. 

Nina Sayers (Portman), however, would have been better off if the curtain call came earlier. Yet, an early curtain call would have robbed audiences of the chance to watch as a nightmare unfolds with a “frigid” perfectionist competing with a rival more cutthroat than the ubiquitous “new girl” – in this case Lily (Mila Kunis, the voice of Family Guy‘s Meg Griffin). The real enemy plotting to do her in like Eve Harrington did Margo Channing (from Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve): Nina herself.

Yet Nina’s mother would also be a fair contender as an obstacle threatening Nina’s dream of being the perfect ballerina. Erica Sayers, Nina’s mother (Barbara Hershey), first appears as a doting mother with a twenty-something daughter passively accepting the fact they still live with each other. A few scenes later the “doting mother” is no more. Cue in her replacement: the suffocating stage mother.

Her over-protective habits become the antics of a controlling woman obsessed with making her daughter a real-life Vicky Page (from the definitive “ballet picture”, The Red Shoes). She refuses to let Nina step out on alone onto the stage called life. In her eyes, she’s still her “little princess” that she can never allow out of her sight. She constantly calls her daughter’s mobile throughout the day – in between adding more of her self-drawn artwork to a wall covered with Nina’s image.

Living with a stage mom forces Nina to repress her desire for a life beyond their small two-bedroom apartment, including romantic pursuits. Thomas Leroy (French actor Vincent Cassel), the ballet company’s choreographer ignites some of Nina’s long-repressed urges while she faces the challenge of dancing in the dual role of Swan Lake comprised of the White and Black Swans.

As a purist for technique, Nina easily masters the demanding role of the White Swan, which requires a high level of precision. Yet, she stumbles when she has to dance as the Black Swan: She is unable to “lose herself” and loosen up. Kunis and Cassel will eventually help her resolve that problem– ensuring that Nina’s transformation into the Black Swan will be complete.

To make her “transformation” into both swans complete, Nina must finally break away from her mother – and she does. After her mother tries to prevent her from going to the show’s opening night, she storms out the apartment, rushes to the theater where she puts her life on the line to pirouette one more time.

Classic Rating Scale: 9/10

Side-note: I personally find ballet boring (being forced to see The Nutcracker too many times as a kid will do that to you). So, no one should dismiss the film as a “ballet movie.”

Surprisingly, the “best dancer” in the movie is the camera (and the cameraman) that makes ballet dancing seem more than just stiff movements with leads that have to look up what “chemistry” means. But I digress.

Be sure to keep an eye out for Winona Ryder (of Heathers fame)…you’ll know why after you’ve seen the picture. And no, she didn’t steal the show (or anything else for that matter).