How to Dissect a Black Swan
This article contains spoilers regarding the 2010 film Black Swan. Reader discretion is advised.
A movie like Black Swan is practically begging viewers to engage in discussion and debate as to what they believe actually took place between title and credits. Due to this fact, I wasn’t surprised to see my friend Rudy Gamble put together an extremely interesting article detailing his thoughts on the film. Nor was I surprised, upon reading his article, to find that we had very different takes on the essence of the film.
It’s not that I disagree with Rudy or feel there is even any room to debate whether or not his points are correct; Black Swan is ambiguous as a whole and nearly every scene is open to interpretation. So this is not meant to be a counterpoint to Rudy’s article, but merely a discussion of the same film from a different point of view. Hopefully you’ll find that interesting, at the very least, even if you disagree with me.
The film is told from the perspective of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman). I’m assuming we’ve all seen the film, so I won’t go into particulars (here or anywhere else) about standard story details (e.g. Nina is a ballerina gunning for the lead role in the upcoming production of Swan Lake). I say this is a story told from the first-person perspective for several reasons. First, there isn’t a single scene where Nina is not present (I’m going from memory and I’ve only seen the film once, but I believe this is the case). Second, the camera mimics the motions of Nina throughout most of the film, most noticeably during the dance sequences. Finally, directory Darren Aronofsky uses reflections and mirrors liberally, communicating that we are seeing things from a skewed perspective, one that is not quite accurate, not 100% honest… not that of our own eyes.
Understanding now that we are only seeing things as they appear to Nina, let’s take a deeper look into her character. She is obviously damaged goods, suffering from an enormous amount of stress and many of the things you’d expect to go along with that, such as paranoia, anger, fear and self-destructive habits. It’s quite clear that her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey) is a major source of outside pressure. Erica was once a ballerina herself, and now spends what seems to be the entirety of her existence ensuring that her daughter fulfills the dreams she never could. It’s not crazy to assume some sort of abuse has taken place between Erica and Nina… mental, emotional, perhaps sexual, or some (or all) of the aforementioned. The particulars don’t really matter to the story, just the fact that there is an influential figure in Nina’s life applying pressure for her to be extraordinary.
Taking the first two points, we can understand that we’re experiencing the story from the skewed perspective of a mentally and emotionally unstable person who is desperately striving to achieve a lofty goal. Thus, we can safely assume that what we see on screen is not always what’s actually happening. In fact, to the contrary, I would say that many times, especially when something extreme is occurring on screen, we aren’t seeing anything close to the truth.
For example, let’s take the rash on Nina’s back. This always shows up as a mysterious appearance, one that is almost inexplicable for most of the film. At times I entertained the idea that Lily (Mila Kunis) wasn’t real, but was instead Nina’s dark side… her black swan, and towards this end of the film the rash would gradually reveal itself to be the tattoo that we see on Lily’s back (I’m glad this was not the case). The audience was also meant to wonder if the film was going to take a turn for the extremely bizarre and have Nina actually sprout wings. It’s my contention, however, that Nina is simply scratching at her back for the entire film (actually, before the film even starts).
It’s a self-destructive tick of sorts, similar to the way we see her picking or biting at her fingers in other scenes. On a conscious level, Nina is completely unaware of this behavior, and only sees a flash of it during the trick mirror sequence. One’s mirror reflection doing something different than one’s self is certainly disturbing, but as I wrote earlier, we’re seeing the opposite of what is actually happening. The mirror sequence is actually a moment of clarity, a brief period where Nina is exposed to the fact that she is the one causing the rash on her back; a self-mutilator will often be completely unaware of their own destructive actions. She also wakes up at one point in the film to find that her mother has put socks over her hands, and then her mother explains that she’s been scratching at her back all night.
So what other delusions is Nina experiencing and, in doing so, confusing the audience? Rather than run down a list as Rudy did in his article, I’d like to tackle this from another angle. The film parallels the production of Swan Lake contained within. Very early on in the film, Nina sees herself as the White Swan, the lead role in Swan Lake as her prince (the love she wants to secure, the love that will save her) and current lead ballerina Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) as the Black Swan. Once she secures the lead role in the production, this changes. Nina is still the White Swan, but she now sees the production’s director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) as her prince and Lily as the Black Swan.
It’s during this portion of the film that the majority of the delusions take place, as the outside pressures from Thomas Leroy and Erica Sayers, as well as Nina’s internal pressure are gaining mass exponentially, leading her ultimately to a complete break from reality. She places Lily in the role of the Black Swan in her mind, going back to the point where Lily walked in on (and interrupted) her audition. Lily is a bit of a party girl, down for a night of drinks, dancing and ecstasy, so she fits into the role of corruptor quite nicely. Leroy unwittingly fuels this fire by telling Nina that Lily has the one thing she lacks to be perfect (the ability to let go), and later by casting Lily as her understudy.
Nina parties with Lily one night, and then imagines the two engaging in a torrid one-night stand. Nina believes Lily is after the lead role (Nina’s prince), purposefully sabotaging her practices, and even goes so far as to conjure up a vision of Lily having sex with Leroy. The fact is, as Leroy points out in a conversation with Nina, Lily is only after her role as much as every other ballerina is after her role, no more, no less; believing anything more than that is paranoia.
Let’s not ignore the “Why?” in all of this, though, as I believe that is the very sum and substance of the film. Nina is unable to simply turn a switch and become the Black Swan; she doesn’t have it in her. Or, more precisely, she may have it in her, but needs it to be drawn out by external forces, ones that she does not control on a conscious level. If she is to carry out a perfect performance, one where she delivers not only a pure and delicate White Swan, but also a passionate and dangerous Black Swan, she needs to believe that she is actually making a bonafide transformation… and not just of the mind, but on a much deeper level.
The seeds of metamorphosis that were planted when the lead role of Swan Lake was Nina’s prince take root and grow strong through the middle of the movie, and then finally blossom fully in the finale… the performance of Swan Lake. It’s at this point where the parallel between the production and the film moves into its final and most disturbing phase. Nina has set the stage and is prepared to be both the White Swan and the Black Swan. The audience is now her prince… that which she loves and whose love she requires, that which she, as the White Swan will lose, and as the Black Swan will steal. Most importantly, in the end (again as the White Swan), that which she will take her life in anguish over.
Nina begins the performance as the White Swan spectacularly, but she has set a trap for herself. She’s imagined a romantic connection between Lily and her male partner in an upcoming lift. During this lift, Nina and her partner fall to the ground and blame each other. Nina believes that Lily persuaded Nina’s partner to drop her, but it is Nina who caused the fall. Why… right? There are two reasons. First, if the Black Swan is to truly steal the love of the audience, the prince, her performance must be vastly superior to that of the White Swan’s. Second, Nina requires the anger and disgust for Lily in order to act out her next delusion. Which is…
Nina returns to her dressing room to find Lily dressed as the Black Swan, claiming that she will take over from here. Nina lashes out, smashes a mirror, and then uses a piece of the broken glass to stab and kill Lily… but this is all an illusion of the mind (more on this in a bit). Nina then goes out and gives a lustful, provocative and ultimately stellar performance as the Black Swan, and the prince (the audience) is hers.
Nina returns to her dressing room, now needing to transform back to the White Swan and complete the perfect show. That’s easier said than done; she earlier committed murder, as far as she knows, and there’s a body in her bathroom… not very White Swan-like. That illusion is easily lifted by a knock on the door and a pleasant congrats from a very much alive Lily. Nina now realizes that she didn’t stab Lily earlier, she actually stabbed herself.
Nina, now freed of a murder and the guilt that accompanies such an act, is clear to return as the pure and innocent White Swan for the show’s closing act. Just as important, however, is the fact that she has delivered a wound that will allow her to truly fall to her death at the conclusion of her perfect performance.
Thanks for reading my thoughts. Please feel free to leave some comments below. I’d love to discuss the film in greater detail.