WARNING: Spoilers for the three movies mentioned in the title.
It's hard to know what to say about Black Swan, and I think this is a testament to the film. Every comparison and generalization comes with caveats; the only things that seem to hold unarguably true are the most obvious stylistic observations: it's a psychological thriller with all the aesthetic trappings of the classical world, remixed into a dark psychological landscape. It's a film about the collision of personalities, of the type you only find in an intense world like ballet: aggressive, unreserved personalities that deal in raw human emotional currency, like purity, desire, and control.
What impresses me most about Black Swan, I think, is the intensity of the personalities that collide in order to make this story happen. Portman did a brilliant job playing Nina, the virginal ballet purist who can't seem to let go of herself in order to find her inner "black swan" -- but this role is so perfect a showcase for a brilliant performance, that I think we all sort of expected this of Portman, who's never half-assed a role in her career. Mila Kuniz works wonders as her counterpart, too, but honestly, Kuniz never quite reaches the heights of authenticity that Portman attains. Her character is a bit too much of a foil, a bit too empty and enigmatic, for her to really show off her acting chops.
But Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy, the director of the ballet that drives these characters into conflict... he was really the stand-out, wouldn't you say? His performance is noble and degraded and inspiring and vicious, balancing the things that a ballet director would have to be: an embodiment of the art form's allure, and also a medium for its horrifying expectations, its life-destroying pressure. He sails through so many modes -- creepy, charming, enraged, and sensual -- it's hard for me to do any justice in describing his character.
There's a precedent for this character, of course: Boris Lermentov, the ballet director from the Archer Brothers' The Red Shoes, is a similarly ambivalent, enigmatic figure, a dangerous catalyst for Victoria's love for the dance. Ebert said of him, "... the impresario defies analysis. In his dark eyes we read a fierce resentment. No, it is not jealousy, at least not romantic jealousy. Nothing as simple as that." Lermentov may have a special sort of insidious purpose, but ultimately, he's not much worse than Leroy. Both manipulate their dancers, treat them as objects, and in regarding them as avatars for some dancing muse, forget that they're actually just young girls with real lives.
I think, though, that Thomas Leroy is a more complex character than Lermentov, because in place of Lermentov's melodramatic cruelty and cynicism, Leroy seems to really believe in the human possibilities of dance. And though Leroy is insidiously sexual, he seems to believe in love and sensuality, as well, even if he channels it all into the dance. So he's no less responsible than Lermentov was for the fate that befalls his performer, but in Leroy Thomas's case, it's hard to call him a "villain."
Some friends have suggested that Black Swan was not a literal hallucination-murder-death story, but rather a metaphor for the main character's artistic blossoming. They see a large part of the story as taking place inside of Nina's head (which the narrative gladly acknowledges), and they consider the possibility that the ending is inside her head, as well. This reading may be a little Inception-esque for my taste, but it's a compelling one to consider. Remember, for instance, that Nina saw herself as an actual, physical black swan, whereas she was seen by the audience as a dancer nailing the performance.
If you read the narrative in this way, seeing madness as the catalyst for a butterfly-like personal breakthrough, it comes to resemble another classic tale of creative ambition gone bad, told in Satoshi Kon's anime masterpiece Perfect Blue. That film, though dissociation was its organizing principle, turned out to be a coming-of-age story of Mima, its female protagonist, as she moved away from performing crowd-friendly girl-pop and into the adult world of acting and sensationalism. If you read Black Swan metaphorically, it's close kin to this animated cousin. There are a number of character parallels, as well: Nina's cloying mother has a clear equal in the over-protective casting agent in Perfect Blue, and Aaronofsky's Beth Macintyre, played by Winona Rider, plays a parallel part to the murderous fanboy who stalks Mima in order to prevent her from destroying her own innocence.
These three films are part of a broader cultural myth that's started forming in cinema: the myth of the female artist whose devotion, mixed with the dangerous elements of sexual desire and professional ambition, becomes her path to self-destruction. Aside from The Red Shoes and Perfect Blue (thanks, Frankie, for that observation!), this structure also appears in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution in a slightly modified form (thanks, Mai, for that suggestion!). In Lust, Caution, the theater is the political world, and the dissociation is between the protagonist's performance as a collaborator and her true identity as a subversive. It's a fascinating application of the template, remixed but undeniable in its fidelity.
So there are a few common characteristics that surface in these closely-related movies, and I'd like to enumerate them. If anybody knows of any other films that seem to reinforce this myth, please let me know, I'd like to hear about them.
1 - Female protagonist with a creative ambition that she pursues obsessively
1a - to the point of purism, self-denial, and/or monasticism
2 - A career change, accompanied by a high degree of pressure to perform well
3 - A demand, inherent in the performance, that leads to an unresolvable inner conflict for the protagonist
Some other common characteristics:
4 - the protagonist's final self-destruction (BS, RS, LC)
5 - an over-protective maternal figure limiting the protagonist's growth (BS, PB, LC?)
6 - a monster lurking at the margins, nursing resentment and/or jealousy toward the protagonist (BS, PB)
7 - an unhealthy conflation of desire and sexual repression (BS, PB, LC)
8 - a strong male gaze as catalyst for the protagonist's unhealthy obsession (BS, RS, LC)
9 - a theme of psychological dissociation (BS, PB, LC?)
This is among the most powerful mythic structures I've identified in my short time as a cinephile, with Aaronofsky's Black Swan as an apparent epitome of the type. I'd love to hear other thoughts on the growth of this narrative, if anyone has some other ideas. If you haven't seen any of the above movies, by the way, definitely go check them out. They're all amazing.