Darren Aronofsky’s Terrifying Thriller About Unchecked Ambition Just Hit Netflix
How far would you go to get what you want?
“Girl horror” does not have an official definition, but it’s still become a genre unto itself. Horror is often the ideal arena to unpack anxieties too nebulous to otherwise explain, and girlhood often feels like a scary enough experience as is. To be a girl is to always be subjected to pressure and performance, and the transformation to womanhood isn’t for the faint of heart, either.
As women, we are expected to be perfect and prioritize the pleasure of others, often at the expense of our own. But the act of suppressing our urges is one of the surest ways to manifest a monster, and nowhere is that clearer than in Black Swan, a pastel pink nightmare that’s become a quintessential tale of female mania and monstrosity.
Natalie Portman is Nina Sayers, a high-strung dancer vying for the lead role in her company’s rendition of Swan Lake. She’s worked her entire life for the chance to play the Swan Queen, a dream pushed on her by her mother at an early age. For all her ambition, Nina is stuck in arrested development. She’s a girl in every sense of the word: innocent and naive, sexually immature, and completely oblivious to her wants and needs.
It’s these qualities that make her the perfect candidate to play the White Swan, the embodiment of all things chaste and the tragic heroine of Swan Lake. But the company’s director, Thomas (a slimy Vincent Cassell), wants her in a dual role, playing the sultry, ravenous Black Swan as well. Alas, Nina lacks the life experience to play anything more sophisticated than an innocent gamine. So Thomas instructs her to tap into the urges she’s spent all her life repressing, to lose herself in the Black Swan’s latent sexuality, or else risk losing the role to newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis).
Nina is both desperately eager to please and terrified of being replaced, as she replaced the company’s former prima Beth (Winona Ryder). She dutifully follows Thomas’ counsel, embarking on a psychosexual odyssey that eventually manifests in a Black Swan all her own — and tips the film into some truly heady territory.
For all its brilliance, Black Swan would be nothing without its influences. Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue might be its most notable, but director Darren Aronofsky also looked to the work of Powell and Pressburger (The Red Shoes specifically) and other Hollywood classics like All About Eve to craft this mad dive into a fractured psyche. There’s also a bit of reliance on the classic, creepy folktales that inspired Swan Lake. The themes of identity and duality that influence the ballet, paired with the cutthroat, body-breaking world of classic dance, serve as the backdrop for a much more ambitious tale of the feminine grotesque.
Black Swan is often vilified for its use of established motifs, but it’s how Aronofsky uses them to craft a twisted new fairytale that makes the film truly remarkable. Traditional objects of femininity — pink tulle, ballet slippers, and stuffed animals — feel downright vile under his gaze. Even makeup and performance bend to the filmmaker’s will to become tools of destruction, a trend that Angelica Jade Bastién cites as a regular feature in girl-centric horror.
Black Swan also leans into the demonization of feminine appetites for carnality and ambition. The more agency Nina gains, the more monstrous she becomes. But Aronofsky never frames this as inherently bad, and after watching Nina flail in a gilded cage enforced by her overbearing mother, it’s almost cathartic to see her lash out and make mistakes on her own terms.
Whatever euphoria Nina does manage to experience, however, will always be short-lived. She’s still striving for some semblance of perfection, even if it destroys her. That balance eludes her at every turn, making Black Swan something of a tragedy. But there’s a twisted sort of triumph there, too: by the time Nina makes her (literal?) transition into the Black Swan she was instructed to become, you may very well find yourself cheering her on.