Author: Mark Heyman and John McLaughlin and Andres Heinz
Writer’s Potential: 5
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An insecure dancer struggles with the duality of her new role as the central character in Swan Lake.
NINA (20s) has a strange dream of dancing in a black void. A sinister man appears and pursues her. She tries to escape but can’t. Ultimately, she is transformed into the White Swan from Swan Lake. Nina awakens and immediately begins warm-ups. She describes the dream to her mother, ERICA (50s, herself a former dancer), who responds with surprising indifference. Nina rides the subway to work. Along the way, she spots a ballerina in the next train car who could be her identical twin. Nina is so distracted, she almost misses her stop. When she gets off the train, Nina looks back, but the train moves away too quickly for her to see the girl. Nina passes BETH, the star of the ballet company, on her way into Lincoln Center. Beth signs autographs while the fans ignore Nina. In a group dressing room, Nina’s colleagues VERONICA and GALINA gripe about the failing company. Veronica believes they need fresh blood to bring popularity back to the company. A new girl (eventually introduced as LILY) arrives to the consternation of the other girls. The company does basic steps in a rehearsal space. Nina is chastised for her formal, emotionless performance. MICHAEL BRENNAN, the company’s intense director, arrives. He melodramatically explains the story of Swan Lake: a virginal young woman is trapped in the body of a swan, and only love can free her. She meets a prince, but the Black Swan—the White Swan’s “dark twin”—seduces the prince, leaving the White Swan to commit suicide, the only place where she can find freedom.
As he explains the story, Brennan wanders around the rehearsal space touching various women in the company. At the end, he tells them that the girls he didn’t touch are contenders for the dual lead in Swan Lake. Nina is one of these girls. She’s gleeful, but Beth doesn’t take the news so well—Nina catches her thrashing around in her dressing room. Later, Brennan auditions Nina. She’s excellent as the White Swan; her natural vulnerability and insecurity are suited to the role. He’s less impressed with her stiff, frigid interpretation of the Black Swan. He begs for seduction, but she can’t deliver. Adding insult to injury, Lily interrupts the audition, distracting Nina and causing her to make mistakes. It doesn’t matter much, though, because Brennan has already lost interest in Nina for the role. Depressed, Nina heads home. On the subway platform, a creepy overweight woman terrifies Nina, so she opts to walk home. On the way, Nina sees her double again. She’s distracted when her cell phone rings; when Nina looks back, the double is gone.
Nina arrives home and cries. Erica tries to comfort her daughter. Later, Nina practices the Black Swan dance. She works so hard, she splits a toenail. Nina works through the pain until she’s accomplished it. As Erica helps clean and dress Nina’s toenail, Nina contemplates asking Brennan for another shot. Erica discourages it. The next day, Nina dolls herself up before leaving. Erica knows what she’s up to and scolds Nina; angry, Nina allows her mother to wipe off her lipstick. Nina meets Brennan, who comes on to Nina as he explains what she needs for the role—genuine sexiness, a risk-taking personality. Brennan kisses Nina, who bites his lip. Brennan is shocked but amused. Later, Brennan posts a cast list, and Nina’s shocked to find her name as the lead. She rushes home to celebrate with Erica. When she doesn’t find Erica at home, Nina showers. In the mirror, she finds a rash on her shoulder. Nina looks at her actual shoulder but finds no rash—just a lot of scar tissue. Back in the mirror image, one of the rash bumps begins bleeding. Nina’s momentarily confused, but she’s distracted when she hears Erica arrive.
Nina meets DAVID, the male lead, and Brennan has them rehearse. As expected, Nina is great as the White Swan but terrible as the Black Swan. Brennan and Nina spot Lily rehearsing, and Brennan suggests Lily has the qualities he’s looking for in a Black Swan. That evening, Brennan drags Nina to a fundraiser, where he trumpets her as the new face of the company. Beth is there, but she sulks, gets drunk, and verbally abuses both Nina and Brennan. Lily’s also at the party, and when Nina’s in the bathroom, Lily bursts in with an anonymous stock broker, ready to snort cocaine and have unabashed sex. Nina excuses herself. Afterward, Brennan takes Nina back to his apartment to discuss the role. He immediately begins talking about sex, and when Nina demures, Brennan gives her a homework assignment: go home and masturbate.
At home, Erica tries to help Nina out of her dress. She notices scratch marks on Nina’s shoulder. Erica gets angry at Nina—excessive scratching is not a new problem, but it’s one Erica thought Nina outgrew. Erica forcefully cuts off Nina’s fingernails. The next morning, Nina hasn’t slept. She attempts to masturbate, but she can’t because Erica has slept in a chair in the room, watching Nina. At rehearsal, Brennan announces that Beth jumped off her balcony, nearly killing herself. Without her final performance generating revenue, the fate of the company rests on Nina’s shoulders. Nina visits Beth at the hospital. She’s in a coma. Nina rehearses a Black Swan solo, but she simply can’t do it. Fearing she’s self-conscious, Brennan sends everyone home and forces her to dance alone. She still can’t do it. Brennan begins to seduce her, then stops in the middle and explains that she needs to do what he just di, in her performance. Later, Nina’s left alone to weep. Lily arrives, formally introducing herself and consoling her colleague. Lily makes a joke about Nina having a crush on Brennan, but it hits too close to home—Nina gets angry and storms out.
That night, Nina showers. She momentarily sees her double in the shower, which causes her to panic. Nina looks at herself in the mirror and sees deep, bloody scratches in her shoulder. She tries to cut her fingernails, but she cuts too deep and snips the tips of her fingers. She rushes to bandage them before Erica gets home. The next day, Nina spots Brennan and Lily talking very seriously. During rehearsal, Brennan sarcastically remarks that he’s going to take it easy on Nina, which Lily told him Nina said. Nina gets angry, but Brennan is angrier that Nina can’t handle this role. Nina chews out Lily, who acts surprised. That night, Erica asks Nina if Brennan has tried anything with her. Nina doesn’t like the direction of the conversation and starts snapping at Erica. Lily arrives at the apartment, apologizes sincerely, and invites Nina out. Nina’s initially angered by Lily arriving unannounced, but she’s tired of her mother, so she goes with Lily. Lily takes her to a diner, giving Nina an eyeful of her typical night: hamburgers, beer, ecstasy, and any available man. All of this makes Nina uncomfortable, but she loosens up when Lily slips ecstasy into her drink. The rest of the night is a blur of clubbing and lascivious behavior. Nina brings Lily home. Erica is horrified to find her daughter under the influence, but Nina’s finally able to stand up to her. Before the fight gets truly ugly, Nina locks herself and Lily in the bedroom. Nina and Lily have aggressive sex.
Nina oversleeps and wakes to find Lily gone. Nina arrives at rehearsal, only to find Lily rehearsing her part. Nina snipes at Lily about engineering the previous evening for her own gain, but Lily acts confused, accusing Nina of having “lezzy wet dream,” because she went home with a guy, having parted ways from Nina much earlier. Nina calls her a liar and storms off. During rehearsal, Nina does a much better job as the Black Swan. Nina gets fitted for her costume and is enraged when Lily arrives, saying she’s now the alternate. Nina tries to confront Brennan, but he ignores her and hops in a cab with Lily. The next night, Nina tries to seduce Brennan and fails. Later, she catches Lily and Brennan having sex in the costume shop. Nina visits Beth in the hospital again. She’s out of her coma and lucid enough to hurl more insults at Nina. Nina begins to see Beth as a bruised, disfigured version of her double. Terrified, Nina runs away. She returns home, desperate to see her mother, but all the photos of Nina in the apartment begin whispering, scaring the hell out of Nina. She locks herself in her bedroom again, but she’s freaked Erica out enough that Erica tries beating the door down. Meanwhile, Nina digs into her shoulders and pulls a small black feather out of it. She looks into the mirror and sees black-red pupils in her own eyes. Erica finally beats the door down and sees her disturbed, bleeding daughter. Nina gets physical with Erica, resulting in Nina slamming her own head against the radiator and knocking herself out.
She wakes to find Erica caring for her, but it’s opening night. Erica says she called in sick for her. Nina is horrified. She rushes to the theatre, surprising everyone (and angering Lily). Nina’s costume hides the scratches and scabs. As she dances, Nina sees every female dancer transform into her double. Terrified, she collapses during a jump. Brennan is enraged. Nina recovers and blames David. In her dressing room, Nina sees her double again, but she transforms into Lily. Lily ridicules Nina’s flawed opening and keeps shifting between Lily and Nina’s double. Nina gets angry enough that they fight, shattering her wall mirror. Nina stabs Lily with a hunk of mirror, then goes out and dances as the Black Swan. Everyone’s astounded by her phenomenal dancing. Nina goes back to her dressing room, trying to hide the bleeding corpse of Lily. Suddenly, Lily knocks on the door. She apologizes for her behavior. When she’s gone, Nina looks down at the floor—no corpse. She looks at her own abdomen and sees a small red stain spreading under her costume. Nevertheless, she goes out and continues to dance. Everyone marvels at her greatness. Amid thunderous applause, Lily notices Nina acting strangely, then spots the bloodstain under the costume. Nina dies in Brennan’s arms, smiling.
Black Swan isn’t quite sure if it wants to be a grim character study of an insecure ballerina or a psychological thriller about a damaged woman. Whatever its goal, the thriller elements come across as goofy instead of creepy, and the central character gets lost in a sea of ambiguities. As written, it merits a pass.
The first act does a capable enough job of establishing Nina and her desires: she lives in the shadow of an overbearing mother from whom she longs to escape, and she desperately wants to succeed as a ballerina. The story is less capable when establishing Nina’s apparent hallucinations; from the moment Swan Lake‘s plot is explained (shortly after seeing Nina’s “double” for the first time), the narrative path is inevitable.
The writers head steadily down a predictable course throughout the second and third acts. It does contain a few moments of surprise as Nina’s mental illness becomes more apparent, but once photographs start jeering at her and she begins seeing her double in the faces of every female in the company, the symbolism becomes so overwrought and ridiculous, it’s very difficult to take the story seriously. This is especially problematic in light of its tragic ending; audiences will have a hard time feeling the right amount of sympathy and sadness after laughing at the unintentionally silly hallucination sequences in the third act.
Worse than that, as increasing importance is placed on Nina’s mental and emotional fragility, the writers suddenly avoid the central question: other than terror, what is Nina really thinking and feeling? Does she have any awareness that she’s slowly crumbling, and if so, why does she make no effort to nip it in the bud? Aside from establishing her desire to dance the lead in Swan Lake, the writers don’t take time answering or even raising these questions. As a result, the “character study” portion of the script falls flat.
Nina’s relationships with Lily and Brennan echo the plot of Swan Lake, also to the screenplay’s detriment. Both Lily and Brennan feel like artificial constructs whose only purpose is to usher Nina through a story paralleling the ballet. Nina’s alleged love for Brennan never feels believable, so her anxiety about Lily’s increasing importance to Brennan always comes across as career-related, not romance-related. This triangle simply doesn’t work.
Similarly, while Nina’s strained relationship with her domineering mother starts off with a promising amount of believability, Erica descends into such an off-putting, over-the-top caricature in the second and third acts that it’s hard to believe Nina didn’t have a psychotic break earlier in life. Perhaps the idea was to reflect Nina’s emotional state by portraying Erica as Nina sees her, not as she actually is, but the writers make no attempt to show that as the case.