“It’s about a girl who gets turned into a swan and she needs love to break the spell, but her prince falls for the wrong girl so she kills herself.”
Black Swan (2010), a psychological thriller revolving around the production of Tchaikovsky‘s Swan Lake ballet. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, one of my favourite directors, perhaps most known for his disturbing psychological drama film, Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan for me is not only one of Aronofsky’s best works but also a masterpiece in the world of cinema.
Starring the wonderful Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder, this film is usually my answer for when people ask my what my favourite movie is (that question makes my brain hurt) as I’ve watched it around forty times to date. Despite mentioning it many, many times before, I think it’s time I dedicated a complete blog post to it and allow myself to obsess over it in as many words as possible.
Natalie Portman plays the main character of Nina, a ballet dancer who strives for perfection and control in everything she does. The production of Swan Lake requires a ballerina who can embody both swans; the innocent, fragile and delicate white swan, which Nina already is perfect for, and the more sensual, dark and mysterious black swan. When a new ballerina joins the agency, Lily (played by Kunis) is a far better embodiment of the black swan, the immense pressure Nina feels for competing for the part causes her to loose grip on reality as she plummets into her own nightmare, alive before her eyes.
There are many elements to this masterpiece of cinema that make me love and admire it so deeply. The symbolism and characters are reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, a psychological thriller I think is one of the best ever made. The musical score by Clint Mansell, which I’ve spoken about before here, the themes of duality, fragility and innocence which are explored in a raw and bold way, and the acting is immersive and as close to perfection as humanly possible.
Nina Sayers, the protagonist, lives with her mother and sleeps in a room still decorated as if she was around ten years old. And her mother treats her as such, watching their relationship as it borders on inappropriate is disturbing to watch, as she helps to dress Nina in the morning, calls her phone constantly, and spends all day painting hundreds of portraits of Nina.
Nina’s character exudes the feeling of fragility and innocence. Reflected by her bony, pale body, these elements of Nina’s character are so strong, to watch her interact with people is almost uncomfortable. Her voice is only just above a whisper, her nervousness is strong enough to penetrate into the audience watching the film. Nina is an intense character, she strives for perfection, in fact, she obsesses over achieving this idea of perfection that she so badly needs. Seeing it like almost a form of heaven, Nina wants to reach perfection more than anything in the world. She lives for her idea of perfection. ‘I just want to be perfect.’ Nina says in a painful whisper to Thomas, the director of the ballet,
“I want to be perfect.”
But unlike Thomas and perhaps the other dancers, Nina does not realise that the perfection she is striving for does not exist. Thomas tells her how ‘perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go’ but Nina’s idea of perfection is so strong and so ingrained in her mind that she cannot see past it.
So what does Nina’s idea of perfection look like?
Through symbolism used in Black Swan, Nina strives to be the perfect ‘white swan’ in her everyday life, not just in the ballet. Mirrors feature heavily throughout the film, sometimes the image distorted and broken, not only adding to the strangeness that starts to enter Nina’s life but also her loss of grip on reality, what is real, what is not, and what truly matters and what does not. The frequent use of mirrors also represent Nina’s obsession with the negative image she has of herself, perhaps suggesting she has anorexia or body dysmorphia, or at the very least, a deep unhappiness with the body that she is in. Represented by the scratches she finds on her back which she desperately tries to hide from her intrusive mother who cuts her nails to the skin when she see’s them suggests that Nina has done this before.
Of course, the symbolism of the swan is an important insight into Nina’s character. White swans typically represent purity, beauty, grace and perhaps even strength and innocence; while black swans tend to represent sensuality, uniqueness and strangeness. Nina does not understand that beauty can be found in both purity and sensuality and seems to be deathly frightened of her sexual innocence being destroyed, yet at the same time, seems to yearn for it- like when Thomas kisses her and she bites him.
Many times throughout the film Nina’s innocence is threatened. An old man touches himself while looking at her on the train, Thomas asks her if she is a virgin and mocks her, and while she is out at a bar with Lily, she allows her drink to be spiked. Nina starts to let go of the strict idea of purity and innocence and takes Lily back to her house where they have sex, however, the very next day Lily is not at her house and it seems that the event may not have ever happened. Once again Nina is back to being mocked, feeling ashamed and confused with twisted and liminal route her life has begun to take. It seems for Nina to survive she needs to learn to embody both the white and black swan, not only for the ballet but deep within herself too.
Colour also can be looked into as symbolism for the film. Nina is almost always dressed in pale pastel and neutral colours. Her room is baby pink, the grapefruit her mother prepares for her every morning is, to quote what they say in unison, ‘how pink, so pretty…’ This frequent use of pink is clearly suggesting the childlike and innocence themes of the film, Nina is battling with keeping the innocent side to herself whilst wanting and needing to grow up and be her own person, not helped by her controlling mother who calls her ‘sweet girl,’ ‘sweetie’ and ‘sweetheart’ constantly throughout the film.
Nina’s skin is also porcelain white, not just when she is wearing the swan makeup. Compared to Lily’s tanned olive skin, Nina literally looks breakable like a china doll, which in a way, is exactly what she is.
But there are also darker colours that seep into Nina’s life. The red lipstick she puts on before going to Thomas’ office as an attempt to be sensual and grown up, is also perhaps the red lipstick used to write ‘WHORE’ on the bathroom mirror after she finds out Thomas does, in fact, choose her to be the Swan Queen. Blood is also sprinkled in throughout the film, although only subtly, it’s enough to make you wince as Nina peels the skin around her nail back to reveal a bright stream of blood, or when Nina is in the bathtub and opens her eyes to see herself staring back at her, blood dripping into the water. The blood is representing Nina’s mental and physical pain she is inflicting on herself in her strive for perfection and the sacrifices she is making for a perfection that does not exist.
It’s interesting to read that Aronofsky was inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella, “The Double” a book about a man meeting his doppelgänger who despite exactly like him physically, is ultimately better than him in every way. In the film, Nina mistakes people for herself and sometimes sees Lily when looking at herself, and vice versa. Lily represents sensuality, everyone finds her attractive and captivating, Thomas describing her as ‘effortless’ and much to Nina’s horror, goes as far to say Lily’s dancing is close to perfection because of the very fact she is not striving for it. This theme of symmetry, where we have two characters similar and yet opposite, is really what Nina should be striving for. Duality.
The themes of darkness, uncertainty and shadows also add to Nina’s inability to no longer trust in herself and what’s around her. For us as the audience, we watch helplessly as Nina descends further into insanity, no longer able to see clearly. We watch her spiral out of control and watch her as she loses not only her innocence she was so afraid of losing but also her kindness, her sanity, her grasp on life. The night after an argument with her mother, we watch as she literally transforms into a swan, the feathers in her skin, her eyes turning red, her legs bending and then- snap, she falls and hits her head on her bed. After waking up and realizing her mother has locked her in her room so she cannot perform, she breaks her mother’s hand and finally stands up for herself as her mother asks where her ‘sweet girl’ as gone, claims Nina is ‘unwell’ (but we as the audience know this is truer than even she realizes) and shouts, ‘I’m the Swan Queen, you’re the one who never left the Corps!’
She is so intensely intertwined in her idea of perfection and attaining it that, instead of accepting the sensual, more independent parts of herself and embodying both the white and black swan, she destroys the white swan which she was and completely transforms as a the darkest black swan anyone could have imagined.
Essentially, Nina’s fight is against herself. The anxiety riddled Nina was so intensely worried about her innocence being destroyed, letting go of her childhood, finally telling her mother that she was not in control of her anymore and of course, her strive for perfection- was all that killed her long before her death at the end. Just as in Repulsion, Nina’s seclusion from normality, detachment from reality and other people, being trapped inside her head was as much her descent into madness as it was a decent into the darkest place of herself. What she was essentially so afraid of; letting go, being free, forgetting about perfection, was exactly what could have saved her.
Just as Thomas describes at the start of the film, ‘We all know the story. Virginal girl, pure and sweet, trapped in the body of a swan. She desires freedom but only true love can break the spell….’Devastated the white swan leaps of a cliff killing herself and, in death, finds freedom.’ We have just seen a new, disturbing and physiological version of Swan Lake before our eyes, entirely embodied by the character of Nina and her fatal flaw of striving for perfection.
“I felt it…perfect. It was perfect.”