My Sweet, Frigid Little Girl: Some Thoughts on Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan
This article has no over-arching theme but is a collection of thoughts on some important themes and motifs in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. The author will in the following assume that the reader is already familiar with the film and shall not dwell on plot explanation. Still, a brief summary of the principal characters could be useful to set the stage: Nina (Natalie Portman) is a young ballet dancer who competes with a new arrival, Lily (Mila Kunis), for the role of the Swan Queen in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Nina is completely dominated by her mother (Barbara Hershey), while a brilliant choreographer, Tomas (Vincent Cassel), is determined to bring out the hidden passion inside the timid and perfectionist Nina, so that she will be able to embody both the White and Black Swan of the ballet.
Sex and narcissism
Rather than expressing a relationship between two people, sex in Black Swan is mainly a reflection of the protagonist’s self-absorption, narcissism and striving to become complete.
The most prominent non-Tchaikovsky musical motif in the film is a dark, seductively churning piece that is employed in four sexually oriented scenes. It is quite muted in the bathroom scene between Nina and Lily during the reception, when Lily takes off her panties and puts them in her purse (for what it’s worth, a vaginal symbol). Then it is more pronounced when Lily is feeling Nina up during the taxi ride. It is full-blown during Nina’s first masturbation scene, and in crescendo, twice, in the lesbian sex scene – which in reality is Nina fantasising about having sex with Lily.
But this musical motif appears once more – this time, very tellingly, in a non-sexual setting, and taking on added significance by being the first time we hear it in the film’s continuity. In this scene, Nina is at home practising the turning fouetté that she was unable to finish during the audition. (As an expression of how Nina is only living for the ballet, the living-room of her cramped apartment doubles as a miniature ballet studio.) Entering a trance-like state, Nina seems determined to go on practicing forever, all the while studying herself in a full-body mirror.
Throughout the film, Darren Aronofsky heavily emphasises the fact that ballet dancers during training are constantly surrounded by mirrors. This helps them judge and correct their moves, but also seems to cultivate in Nina – even though it might not meet the strict clinical criteria for the psychiatric condition – some form of narcissism. Having no relationships except the unhealthy one with her dominating mother, the constant, total absorption with her mirror image indicates a profound self-love. It is then only logical that her later masturbation – as Woody Allen puts it, “sex with someone you love” – should, through the musical motif, be connected to this narcissism. And when she finally has sex with someone, it is equally logical that it should turn out to be merely a masturbatory fantasy. It also fits the narcissist pattern that Nina is here fantasising about a girl who in many ways is herself, in fact on two levels: firstly, due to the many parallels between Nina and Lily constructed by the film, and secondly, the fact that in many scenes Nina is seen to project her own face on Lily’s appearance.
Sex and homework
Again through the musical motif, there is another highly plausible way of looking at this that works in parallel with the narcissist angle: sex as an extension of her ballet training. Like the training session before the mirror in the living-room was to finish a passage that was interrupted during an audition, and connected to sex through the music, Tomas, the choreographer, assigns her as “homework” to masturbate, to “live a little”. But Nina takes this further than Tomas probably intended. For Nina is so obsessed with ballet that the sexual pleasure she gets from masturbating is immediately translated into “dancing”, as she starts to move rhythmically about on the bed. (Note that it is in this very scene Aronofsky chooses to fully reveal to which extent her bedroom is filled with childish, cuddly toys – a state mostly hinted at so far. The revelation creates a brilliantly precise counterpoint between the physicality of Nina’s sexual bliss and the detached, wry observation that such sexual experimentation should really belong in the bedroom of a much younger girl than the twenty-something now writhing on the bed.)
Like the masturbation is in this way linked to dancing, the goal of Nina’s later sex with Lily is possibly not so much the sex itself, but, at least subconsciously, a desire to merge with Lily. Nina has already shown a related behaviour pattern. Early in the film we see how Nina is stealing things from Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder), the ballerina that Nina will soon replace, ostensibly in the hope that some of Beth’s personality shall rub off on Nina – and, significantly, she uses Beth’s lipstick to bolster her pathetic seduction attempt to get Tomas to give her the role of the Swan Queen. Later we see Nina dancing in a training session with her hair loose, something she seems to have copied from Lily after having observed how the latter was praised by Tomas for her naturalness and seductiveness (“She’s not faking it”).
What Nina now hopes for, through her sexual encounter, is to absorb Lily’s easy physicality and assured sexuality – “the dark side” that Nina needs to be able to portray the Black Swan. (It ultimately turns out, however, that to fully embody the Black Swan, nothing less than an act of utter selfishness and ruthlessness, a murder, is needed.) Through the drug she has taken, combined with the sexual arousal, Nina tries to totally forget her own crippled identity, in order to lay herself as open as possible for a completion with Lily. Nina’s orgasm – probably her first ever – is appropriately shattering, visually enhanced by the blanket under her head, through its many colours and circles. (Yes, there is a circle motif in this film as well, although not as pronounced as in The Fountain).
There could be many reasons for including the lesbian sex in the film – sex with another girl represents a greater breakthrough than mere sex with a man – but the primary issue for Nina seems to be to achieve completion. Her lesbian yearnings undeniably lend an interesting nuance, however, to her fascination with Beth McIntyre. Nevertheless, Nina seems also to respond well to males – at least when she gets the taste for it – as when Tomas seduces her during a training session.
Complicating this picture is the fact that Tomas is one of the few men around, and also being much older, he cannot avoid being seen as a father figure. Not long after the seduction, as if to underscore this, Nina encounters (probably imagines) an outrageously lecherous old man on the underground. This incident seems to serve as punishment, possibly for stealing since Nina is using Beth’s nail file in this scene, but more importantly, for her giving in to Tomas. For in Black Swan Nina is constantly punished for exploring sexuality. She has to hastily abort her first masturbation attempt because of the sudden discovery of her mother sleeping in a chair beside the bed. (Metaphorically, this situation obviously represents Nina’s own self-policing of her sexuality, subconsciously imposed by her mother.) Nina’s next attempt, in the bathtub, is immediately punished by the horror-movie hallucination of herself leering ominously down at her, and afterwards she starts bleeding from the fingers that were used for the masturbation. When Nina stops Lily when the latter starts feeling her up in the taxi – highly likely another imagined scene – the same hand, with the band-aids on the injured fingers clearly visible for the only time in the film, is used to push Lily away.
Mirrors are among a film director’s most powerful tools – encouraging ambiguity, suggesting disorientation and, not least, dramatically increasing the range of composition possibilities for each shot. Particularly brilliant in Black Swan in all these respects is the early scene in the soloists’ wardrobe, with its vertiginous, labyrinthine array of reflective surfaces creating a splintered, suffocating view of a fiercely competitive femininity.
Far from being a cheap device that less gifted directors may be tempted to fall back on to create some visual pyrotechnics, the obsessive use of all kinds of reflective surfaces in Black Swan is a natural motivic extension of the copious presence of mirrors in the dancers’ natural environment, and with this, Aronofsky further underlines the narcissism discussed above. But the omnipresence of reflections also expresses the single-minded nature of its protagonist.
In view of all this, it takes on added significance that the word “whore”, which Nina discovers when she comes out of the toilet, is written on a mirror. It is also important that a mirror is destroyed when she is physically fighting her Black Swan persona – it is perfectly logical that the Black Swan, Nina’s “mirror image”, is momentarily immobilised when it shatters – and that a shard from it is used as a murder weapon and will end up piercing Nina’s abdomen. Furthermore, for a person who has virtually built her whole life on the reliability of mirrors, all the more horrifying it must be to experience the two scenes where her mirror image revolts, taking on a life of its own.
Aronofsky extends the range of all these reflective efforts even further, however, in inventive fashion. One petrifyingly effective moment comes when at the height of her hysteria, Nina is stopped dead in her tracks by the sight of posters of herself – two of them, of course – outside the concert hall, advertising the upcoming ballet premiere. This can be seen as a variation on the many unreliable mirrors in the film, for Nina’s poster image of serene elegance is very much at odds with the crazed chaos inside her – and with marvellous efficiency, these 3-4 seconds drive home the question of how, with only one day to go, can this poor creature be able to perform anything at all?
While the Narcissus of myth looked down into a pool of water and fell in love with his mirror image, Black Swan completely reverses this in the scene already discussed, where Nina, (1) submerged in the bathtub, is (2) looking up and is (3) horrified by her “mirror image”. Another interesting case is her mother’s room – in a film where all four main characters are more or less self-centred, this room is extension of that since almost all its many paintings and drawings depict Nina or her mother – where the images are mimicking, both in sound and image, Nina’s psychotic state. It also seems significant that during the two most blatant instances of self-abuse – when she rips off a long strand of skin from her finger and when she deliberately cuts her finger with some scissors – she stands before a mirror, and in the last case staring right into it, as if commanded by her mirror image. It is as if an unknown part of her psyche, the one that makes Nina scratch herself when sleeping, is hiding inside the mirror. (This is supported by the fact that when the mirrors go crazy during Nina’s visit to the costume maker, one of Nina’s mirror images is scratching herself.)
An even wider interpretation of the “extended mirroring” in Black Swan comes in the very early, oddly half-unreal scene when Nina prepares to go to the ballet in the morning. In line with the film’s atmosphere of solipsism, although we hear and see two glimpses of her mother, in some way only Nina seems to exist – as if Aronofsky is here preparing the viewer’s subconscious for the fact that Nina is living in her own world. She is exercising before the mirror and although engaging in some form of conversation, no response is given and does not even seem to be expected. And when we finally see her mother properly, both she and Nina are grinning and saying the word “pretty” simultaneously, as if she is just a mirror of Nina. The scene ends in an embrace where her mother, with a sudden, strangely dark stare, looks over Nina’s shoulder – as if she, too, is looking into Nina’s reflection in the underground train window that opens the next scene.
Projective and subconscious mirroring
Like quite a few of the mirrors in the film, Nina’s senses become untrustworthy as well, as she is increasingly projecting herself into other people. After having gazed into her own reflection in the window of the underground train, Nina suddenly thinks she sees her own face on a person in the next carriage. (Aronofsky employed a similar trick in Pi when the equally obsessed protagonist thought he saw himself on an underground train platform.) The connection between them is further underscored by both of them touching their ear.
Aronofsky is playing games with Nina’s, and our, subconscious here. For after Nina has reached her destination, the “mirror” wardrobe at the ballet, another girl eventually barges in, explaining her lateness by having gotten off the underground at the wrong stop. Nina looks concerned, possibly sharing the other girls’ cool response to the arrival of a new competitor. But there is something more to Nina’s bemused look, because this person is actually wearing the same clothes as the girl on the train (her scarf is now tucked in under the coat collar, probably to make the point less obvious). For this is Lily, who will turn out to be Nina’s nemesis, competing for the same role as the Swan Queen. So we have a rather fantastic situation: even before Nina knew who Lily was, she was already projecting her own face on to Lily – as if Nina clairvoyantly was able to anticipate not only the threat Lily represents, but also the fact that in temperament Lily represents the very dark side that Nina needs to access in order to play the Swan Queen.
In a later scene when Lily appears in the door of the principal studio where Nina sits close to tears, Aronofsky sows some sophisticated confusion. When Lily stands there in shadow, it is in fact Nina we see. In the next shot of what ostensibly is Lily, it appears, although a bit hard to determine, still to be Nina. But when the figure during the same shot finally steps into the light, she is transformed, by some special effect, into Lily. All this is quite hard to see on a conscious level, at least on a first viewing, so these intricacies are supposed to work on the viewer’s subconscious, instilling in us the same uncertainty that Nina feels.
This uncertainty is manifested in other ways. In an eerie, early scene on a dark walkway Nina comes across a black-clad woman who intermittently looks like Nina. That other person is played by Sarah Lane, Natalie Portman‘s dance double (the person is called in the end credits “the lady in the lane“), both as a humorous in-joke and also because they, of course, look similar to each other. Furthermore, when Lily is going down on Nina during the sex scene, Nina gets a shock because she in one short instant does not seem to be Lily any more, but, in line with the masturbation motif, Nina. But not exactly Nina either – the face is strangely lifeless and seems rather to be a computer-generated likeness of Portman. Things get even more complicated in the late scene when Nina discovers, or (partly) imagines, a couple having sex behind the stage. At first it definitely looks like Tomas having sex with Lily, but the female face later leering directly at Nina is in fact not conclusively discernible as belonging to anyone we have seen before (although it could be Galina, one of the dancers in the “mirror” wardrobe scene).
Melodrama and ambiguity
Black Swan is clearly a melodrama, populated by archetypal characters. To judge such a film by any criteria of realism and depth of characterisation would, of course, be superbly beside the point. But even though the film is brimming with grandiose gestures and sweeping strokes, Aronofsky still manages to achieve a fruitful ambiguity.
At least after repeated viewings have allowed nuances to come out – with small gestures and glances softening up the simplicity and apparent banality of the dialogue – none of the characters turn out to be easy to peg down, especially since everything we see is coloured by Nina’s mental state. Lily might be a ruthless manipulator, sensing Nina’s emotional troubles and exploiting them to sabotage Nina’s work discipline to create an opening for herself – or, although highly competitive and ambitious, she might still feel genuinely sorry for Nina, trying to help her relax. Tomas might be another schemer, seeing Nina as easy sexual prey and, due to her weak personality, as easily malleable raw material for his own success – or, although cold and far from compassionate, giving Nina the chance of a lifetime to realise her artistic potential.
Nina’s mother may be the character who is the most resistant to an ambiguous reading, in that she encourages, in fact virtually forces, Nina to remain in a state of arrested emotional development. She also uses the fact that Nina is scratching herself in her sleep as punishment to cement her domination. But, even though almost her every remark of encouragement also has an undercurrent of criticism, at times she is seen as supportive. The fact that she and Nina represent the film’s closest bond makes the portrayal of her also the most unreliable, due to Nina’s psychopathological rebellion.
Generally speaking, however, all the supporting characters of the film can be regarded as being located somewhere along the axis between the extremes outlined above. Even in the framework of a melodrama of the most full-blooded scale, thundering along with exceptional briskness, Black Swan thus faithfully reflects how difficult it is in real life to fully fathom the motivations of the people surrounding us.
At the centre of this triangle of possible manipulators/predators, we have Nina, who is characterised much more deeply than the others. In this way the film succeeds in the considerable feat of balancing spectacular showmanship with engaging emotional intimacy. Like Tomas unlocks hidden resources inside Nina, Aronofsky gives Natalie Portman the opportunity to show a hitherto unseen, astonishing range. (Part of the film’s impact is the fact that both Nina’s artistic breakthrough and her final line of “It was perfect” can be said to be valid for Portman as well, deliciously crowned by her winning an Oscar.)
Some of the few voices criticising the film have complained about its predictability, but it definitely does not feel that way to Nina. What is perhaps the most heart-breaking about the film is her utter helplessness, her tunnel vision and lack of perspective as she is swept away by a maelstrom of events – weighed down by that most stubborn of all female illnesses: bad self-image. This ultimate “nice girl” only lives in relation to others’ praise and scolding. She is at the mercy of a totally unpredictable world, marked by constant psychological warfare. As so brilliantly encapsulated within the fingernail-clipping scene, for example, her mother is loving one instant, then suddenly dominating and almost violent. Tomas is encouraging one moment and then full of contempt. Lily constantly alternates between being chummy, condescending and scheming.
The opening night and the end
Even with Portman’s celebrated performance and its rich tapestry of structural patterns, Black Swan is probably not a lucid work of art of the kind that is capable of deep insights into the human condition. A large part of its brilliance lies as an audiovisual experience, a circus number of the soul – not least in its electrifying grand finale, where Nina must finally prove herself on stage on the opening night of “Swan Lake”. When other films with similar storylines are supposed to climax in such an event, they often fail to fully deliver. The last twenty minutes of Black Swan, however, feels as intoxicating and radical to us as the ballerina’s own triumph on stage.
When Nina is dream-dancing the same ballet in the film’s opening shot, the harsh lighting clairvoyantly makes it look like she simultaneously embodies both the white and the black swan. In the ending these white and dark sides meet with explosive effect, as if in a collision between emotional matter and anti-matter that somehow remains stable long enough for a deathless performance before she must be annihilated.
Like the rest of the film, the ending gains considerable power from a muscular use of repetitive patterns. Tomas’s command to “look at the audience” during the final seconds of Nina’s performance is echoed, and transposed to the film medium, by Aronofsky instructing Portman to look into the camera. This she does, twice, when she is falling and before the final closing of her eyes. Especially during the fall her trance-like gaze is eerily mesmerising, and these two moments of direct eye contact feel like a final development of the mirror motif, both reflecting the old proverb that “the eyes are the mirror of the soul” and that we, the audience, can mirror ourselves in the fictional character.
Furthermore, when Nina seems to have killed Lily, she escapes reality – almost as if she were a David Lynch character – by denying it, apparently wilfully disappearing into the alternate world of the black swan, red gaze and all. Later, when she realises she has grown psychotic and is merely a mental wreck who cannot trust her senses any more, she again escapes, but this time with more thoughtfulness and wisdom. Actors often say that what attracts them to acting is the opportunity to leave their own troubles behind and instead immerse themselves in a fictional character – and this is beautifully expressed when Nina starts using her make-up pad to sweep away her tears.
Nina’s two greatest moments, of artistic triumph and perfection, are both marked by the stage lights gradually being lit until they reach a dazzling extreme. The first moment comes as the black swan when she is proudly stretching her wings, fully transformed, at the height of life. The second comes as the white swan after she has lived through the extremes of human experience and is fulfilled – in death.
Here are some additional points that do not naturally fit into the article but deserve to be mentioned:
- It is easy to believe that the dance sequence of the prologue is a proper dream, but it may be significant that when it ends, we do not see Nina waking up. On the contrary, she lies with open eyes, as if she might have been daydreaming, something that creates a satisfying ambiguity and is also in line with the film’s blurring of reality and dream.
- When we first see Nina, after the dream-prologue, her eyes are open, when we last see her, she is closing them.
- How can such a sensitive and shy girl have risen so high in the ruthlessly competitively world of ballet? The early shot in the corridor where Nina is totally immersed in her art while the other girls are relaxing in the background seems to give the explanation in a short, striking flash: as her mother says, Nina is the most dedicated girl in the company. Note that the apparent use of a wide-angle lens exaggerates the distance between them, putting Nina on a seemingly separate plane of existence compared to the other girls.
- In this film, even totally mundane scenes may have additional meaning. In the first scene in which Nina is using the garbage chute it is surrounded by garbage and leftovers from refurbishments. But in the second scene she is using it time the surroundings are much tidier, echoing Nina’s housecleaning in that moment (she is throwing away all her furry animals).
- As usual with Aronofsky, his images are loaded with hidden meaning and telling details, sometimes to humorous effect. The production design of Tomas’s apartment with its gnarled tree-like sculptures and Rorschach-like painting (a tree with birds?) is simply surreal. The black basket in his office is full of crumpled-up white paper, as if joke-symbolising that Nina must get rid of excess whiteness to reach her inner black swan (the basket has transparent sides to make the paper inside more visible). Tomas also has a skeletal model of a large bird (placed in front of a mirror, of course) which could well be a swan – earlier Tomas has said about his “Swan Lake” production that it will be “stripped down”, and the bird in his office is precisely that, stripped down to a skeleton.
- During the 1960s a curious genre arose, called by many names, but the most sonorous is “hag horror”. Here aging Hollywood stars, like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford or Olivia de Havilland, were often subjected to humiliating circumstances, often in family dramas where the members were pitted against each other in psychological warfare in confined spaces. Emblematic of this genre are two brilliant Robert Aldrich films, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Black Swan’s trumped-up melodrama, Barbara Hershey’s hideous make-up as the mother, the degrading violence she is subjected to towards the end, and, not least, her exasperated question “What happened to my sweet girl?” in my ears ring a lot of bells harking back to that hag horror genre of yesterday.
- One sequence of the film is an unfailing source of delight: the increasingly over-the-top one that starts when the studio lights are turned off when Nina is training on the eve of the premiere, and ends when Nina is knocked unconscious after she has knocked her head against the bedpost. With its insanely exaggerated hysteria, irrational speed, thumping piano, wild cacophony of shrieking women’s voices and senseless violence, it is a perfect example of the kind of frenzied melodrama that the movies can do so well – and the way that events are piling up is reminiscent of the famous Monty Python parody of violent Sam Peckinpah films, where the characters cannot do anything without creating new disasters and mutilations, and finally run around with cut-off hands and arms.