(A very long piece ahead. The review contains a fair few spoilers to express regarding the points I think Aronofsky tries to make)
I didn't think much of Black Swan immediately after I had watched it. The more I thought about it though, the more I understood it and started appreciating it. Black Swan is about what artists go through, mostly emotionally and internally to create art. It is a psychological piece with great depth and is multi-layered.
In the second scene, we get a peak into the life of Nina Sayers played by Portman. She wakes up and gets in her routine of exercises. There is an innocence about her in her dedication and sincerity to her art. Not much seems wrong with her. We, as a society, appreciate people who are devoted to their art/profession, particularly those who manage to succeed. However, we do not realize what goes into creating hard work which also results in success.
The success part is indispensable. In the Gita, it is written that one should keep doing one's job without caring for the result. However, in life, you tend to up the stakes so much that you cannot live without success. Nina's mother says to her that she should be selected as she has been there long enough and is 'the most dedicated dancer in the company'. It obviously highlights that time is running out on Nina (and thus the obvious pressures of that). However, it also looks at the crux of the proeblem. Success is not always in your hand or dependent on how dedicated you are or how hard you work or even how talented you are. Ability is a prerequisite of success and you can hone your talent and become the best in the world. However, even if you are the best in the world (it is a highly subjective thing I might add, there is no unanimous 'best', it is some thing which is dynamic and highly subjective), you need opportunities and the people in power need to provide you with that opportunity.
Nina talks about having dreamt the previous night that she was dancing the White Swan. She even remembers the steps she danced in the dream and says it was a different choreography. This is what her life is all about. It is the ONLY thing her life is about. From time immemorial she has dreamt of being perfect.
It is very symbolic and poignant that she dreamt of being the White Swan and not the Black Swan. From her childhood, she has dreamt of being a great ballerina and what draws her to it are the good (white) aspects. It is an outsider's view when you are a child and dreams are formed. At that stage, you don't know about the bad (black) aspects. As Cassell, playing the director of the show tells Nina, she plays the white swan very well but it the part of the black swan which she has to play well.
From that innocent childhood of dreams and ambition, Nina eventually turns into a black swan. In all the psychological assault which Nina takes, she doesn't lose focus of her dream. While she is dying in the last scene, she is joyous that she has finally achieved what she has strived for all her life - perfection in her art.
All through the movie, we see the insecurity an artist has. Earlier, Nina wants to get the part. When she gets it, she is constantly worried some one will take it away from her. The first thought which comes to her mind when she wakes up from sleep is that the part may not remain with her. Even between acts in the final performance, she hallucinates that Lily (played by Kunis) is getting ready and will snatch the part of the black swan from her. She imagines that she has kills Lily. It is again symbolic - when you are the Swan Queen, you kill many such Lily's.
There are other artists shown. Beth (played by Ryder) has seen the baton pass and we see what an artist who is past the glory days go through. A performer like a ballerina or a sports person has a very small prime life. All through life from a very young age, you try to learn one thing and you know nothing else. A lot of times, you don't even reach the stage of huge success. This is why these people dread retiring and want to carry on as long as they possibly can. You saw Michael Jordan do it and now Schumacher is doing it. No one really wants to retire as they don't know to do any thing else.
I once met a former Indian test cricketer who wasn't very successful at the international level. He told me with deep regret that he never gave importance to studies and would advice every one to finish their studies. He was playing domestic cricket at the time which gave him very measly sums but in a few years, he wouldn't be getting even that given that he hadn't really learned any thing all his life. You see even successful people like Portman and now some one like Emma Watson give priority to their education which is a very wise decision.
There is lot of sexual scenes in the film which has caused intriguing debates about whether female sexuality was potrayed in a manner which is essentially voyueristic and in a manner which is essentially gratification for the male audiences. There is also the view points regarding sexual repression. I really don't think the sexual scenes were about the sexual aspects at all.
Firstly, Cassell exploits Nina sexually in the film. He kisses her without consent, gropes her and forces himself on her more than once. I don't think he did it for the sake of getting any great performance out of Nina at all. Also, it is not some thing you can justify as it is essentially sexual abuse which is a crime. It is reprehensible and should be condemned in the strongest words.
A lot has been made about Cassell telling Nina to touch herself a little. I don't think he told it with any great plan of creating artistic performances from Nina. It might have been a small fantasy of his which he uttered out aloud and not much more. Nina though, to perfect the art, is willing to try every thing. When she is masturbating, she envisions her mother sitting on the chair and is petrified. At another time in the tub, she sees a horrific face emerge. These are signs that she may not really want to do these acts and may even want not to do them but does them as Cassell has told her and she believes it might improve her art. It is another step from the white to the black. The taking of drugs, the lesbian scenes are all extension of going to the dark side. Nina, for all it is worth, is straight. There is no indication that she has lesbian inclinations but she wants to keep Lily happy and is willing to do any thing for it. That she wants to keep Lily happy would show that she is at a heightened state of insecurity - at this stage the natural reaction is to try and keep every thing calm and every one around you pleased and not to ruffle them even in the slightest.
Lily of course never did have any lesbian action with Nina as it is evident from the next day when Nina confronts Lily. Lily is depicting an artist at an extremely innocent and initial stage of the degradation of the artist in the film. She is some one who looks up to Nina. When Nina gives a great performance, she goes to Nina's room and personally congratulates her. She is genuinely delighted. She wants to be a great ballerina like Nina but hasn't been exposed to the darker aspects of the art yet.Of course, as she wants to be a great ballerina, she is already trapped in the wormhole and it is a matter of time before she gets completely sucked in.
The character of Nina's mother is also a statement on another aspect of an artist's life. Nina's mother is a former ballerina who wasn't successful. She is a pyschological mess and has planted her dreams in Nina. She gives idealistic garbage talk to Nina which raise expectations which she knows are far away from reality. She tells Nina that she should be selected as she is the most dedicated dancer in the company. You see the scene where she reacts very weirdly when Lily comes to her flat to talk with Nina. She first tell's Lily that Nina is not home and then constantly tells Nina to come back to the flat as it is late and she ought to sleep. In frustration, Nina takes off from the flat. She tells her mother at one stage that she is an adult now and no longer a child. We don't see Nina having any friends or a social life in the film. She has essentially been cut off from the world by her mother from early childhood. She hasn't really had a child hood. The parts where it is shown that the mother is stopping Nina from going for practices is an imagination of Nina according to me. By that stage, Nina is consumed by her dream and she thinks the whole world, including her mother, is against her. She essentially finds herself alone, fighting a solo battle. The way the character of the mother is structured in the first half of the film, she wouldn't behave in a manner to stop Nina from playing the White Swan. That it is imagination is strengthened by the fact that she never really does manage to stop her. Even when she locks the door, Nina magically finds the keys and is free.
There is a lot of physical aspects too which are very interesting. A portion of Nina's back is always tearing apart and blood is coming out of it. Her nails keep breaking with more bloody scenes. She is breaking up emotionally and she sees it though a breaking up of her body. When you look at Nina's face all through the film, it is strangely stressed and neurotic. It is as if she is in a state of constant heightened tension. Amazingly potrayed through the images and the performance of Portman.
When you are insecure, nervous and fearful, you imagine the worst. Nina imagining her legs breaking is a reflection of that. It is also probably because of constant physical pain that she fears it because of the physical assault her body has been put through all of Nina's life. Close ups of the feet balanced on the toes while dancing are shown a few times. She is also shown going to the doctor who examines her ankles. This are just brief moments where the physical aspects of the perils of art are shown. This is examined in a lot more detail in The Wrestler. The careers are over by the time you are 30-40 depending upon your art. Artists and performers destroy their body by that time though and are in pain all through their lives. I remember an interview with India's most successful test bowler with Harsha Bhogle after a successful tour of Australia. Bhogle asked Kumble enthusiastically how long he would play. Kumble said that his shoulders hurt every day because of constantly bowling and he cannot carry on for too long. That was a pretty sad. What is sadder is that Kumble is still continuing in the Indian Premier League a fair few years after that interview. Not begrudging him playing (and he is doing well) as a sportsperson's life is short and the more you can extend it, the more money you can make in that short span, the better it is for them.
Coming back to Black Swan, it is a very tragic piece and commentary on the pyschological transformation an artist goes through while seeking that elusive glory. It is true not only about artists but is true in any field. A lot of people lose a sense of the larger picture in pursuit of the goals they set themselves. A lot of people live with a false sense that the world revolves around them. While dedication and hard work to achieve a goal is great, you have to enjoy the process. Life is all about cherishing each moment you have in this world. It is not about living in constant emotional turmoil. Can one achieve huge success without losing one self in life or in art (specifically as this movie is about art)? It is a tricky one but first you have to decide whether you want to lose yourself in pursuit of your dreams or not.
The more I keep thinking about the film, I keep coming up with more points and facets. The film's greatness keeps increasing. This is a film which touches on a lot of points and has a lot of depth and layers. It is a masterpiece. 9/10.
PS - I didn't really talk any thing about the haunting, disturbing and great score, the direction or the masterful way in which the film is made. It is a work of masterful craftsmanship from the point of view of film making. Even if you don't like the film at all, you can't take way that from Aronofsky.