One of the best parts about spending four years pursuing a degree in communications – and taking quite a few film-related classes along the way – is that it gave me a strong sense of what my preferences are in regard to film. For example, I learned that I prefer character-driven stories over plot-driven stories. It’s one of my biggest preferences, and if a film is going to spend a lot of time establishing an elaborate plot, but a relatively short amount of time establishing who the characters are, I have little interest in it.
One of the most effective tools a filmmaker can employ in establishing character is duality. Throwing together characters who are opposites can instantly turn a viewer on to what traits a character possesses and what traits a character lacks. This is why the dynamic between Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight is so engaging. The Joker’s immorality highlights Batman’s morality, as well as Batman’s lack of immorality – and vice versa. You know exactly who these two characters are.
Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a film rife with duality. Present in the film is Natalie Portman’s innocent Nina and Mila Kunis’ promiscuous Lily, the ballet characters of the White Swan and the Black Swan, and who Nina is versus whom (or what) she’s becoming. Tons of mirrors and reflections, plus a color pallet inundated with black and white, are thrown in for good measure. Duality is important in this film because Nina’s desire to attain the traits she lacks is what propels the narrative.
A dancer at a ballet company in New York, Nina receives the coveted role of the Swan Queen in her company’s production of Swan Lake. A pretty and technically-flawless dancer, Nina is perfect for the role of the White Swan. It’s the role of the Swan Queen’s other half – that of the erotic, voluptuous Black Swan – that she’s not perfect for. Nina’s complete lack of the Black Swan’s traits leads to doubt on behalf of those around her that she can pull off the role.
The company’s director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), is both Nina’s biggest supporter and her biggest critic. It was his decision to cast her as the Swan Queen, and it’s a gamble. But he’s hopeful that he’ll be able to draw out the Black Swan within her. Thomas’ attempts at doing this establish him as a devoted instructor, clearly dedicated to making sure his company puts on the best show possible. However, Thomas is also manipulative, unafraid of using his position of power among the dancers to his advantage. It’s clear he had a previous relationship with the company’s former star, Beth (Winona Ryder) and he makes aggressive sexual advances toward Nina.
Nina is driven to succeed not only because she wants to reward Thomas for his faith in her, but because she knows he could strip the role from her at any time. Nina spends much of the film worried about this, and continually fails at Thomas’ main goal for her, which is to loosen-up and dance with the kind of abandon that defines the Black Swan as a character. That she constantly fails at this directive and endures Thomas’ stinging criticisms is one of the main reasons she descends into madness.
Cassel’s greatest accomplishment in the role is the sense of ego he imbues Thomas with. One senses that Thomas is less concerned with the prestige the company stands gain from a successful performance of Swan Lake and more concerned with the prestige he stands to gain, being the company’s director. One also senses that Thomas isn’t pursuing Nina because he loves her – he’s doing it simply because he can.
For Nina, there’s no relief from the role’s pressure when she leaves the studio and goes home. Nina’s mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), is a former ballerina whose career was cut short when she got pregnant. Now living vicariously through Nina, Erica obsesses over her daughter’s every move and accepts nothing short of perfection. She’s a stage mom of the worst variety, and the pressure from Erica pushes Nina over the edge as much as anything.
Hershey succeeds at portraying Erica as an antagonist, but she’s equally as successful at transforming Erica into a sympathetic figure by the end of the film. By this point, Nina has lost her grasp on reality and is growing violent. Erica is devastated by the changes in her daughter. Her devastation feels genuine and one pities not only Nina, but Erica, too.
Though Thomas and Erica are oppressive forces in Nina’s life, neither torments her as much as Lily. The film’s best use of duality lies in the dynamic between Nina and Lily; one can tell just by looking at them that they’re complete opposites. Usually dressed in black and sporting dark eye shadow, Lily’s attire stands in contrast to Nina’s white, more conservative clothing. Additionally, one of Lily’s most prominent features is a large tattoo of bird wings across her back. It’s fitting, because Nina seems like the kind of person who would never get a tattoo under any circumstances.
There’s also the way they dance. Lily is full of passion. Her movements are guided by emotion, not technique. Though she’s not technically-proficient like Nina – who is fixated on technique and at attaining perfection within that – Lily attains her own brand of perfection through her style of dance. This perfection rests in how effectively her personality is conveyed to the audience through her instinctual, technique-eschewed movements.
In his attempts to draw the Black Swan out of Nina, Thomas constantly sites Lily as the model for what she should be more like. No matter how hard she tries, though, Nina cannot seem to abandon her rigid, textbook technique in favor of Lily’s more undisciplined style. It would be one thing if her failure to do this merely upset Thomas and that was all she had to worry about. However, Lily’s presence means that Thomas has a second option for the Swan Queen, should he get frustrated enough with Nina’s shortcomings. And this second option dances exactly the way he wants.
To say Nina is aware of this would be an understatement. Her greatest fear is that she’ll lose the role to Lily. What makes matters worse is that Lily almost seems to be waiting for Nina to fail. One can sense that every misstep Nina makes is followed by a smirk from Lily. What makes Lily so dangerous, though, is her ability to conceal her desire for Nina’s role and care about Nina, as if she were a friend.
This trait is most evident during a sequence in which Lily shows up at the apartment Nina shares with her mother, determined to get Nina to go clubbing with her after a trying day at the studio. Lily ultimately succeeds in getting Nina to come out with her – thanks, in part, to the fact that Erica was frustrating Nina more so than usual. Initially, the night out seems like a good idea. It’s a stress-reliever that helps Nina unwind, and it does seem as if Lily has Nina’s best interests at heart.
However, it becomes clear that Lily’s motives might not be so friendly when Nina catches her drugging her drink. Lily insists the drugs are harmless and goads her into drinking it, which she eventually does. The rest of the night is a blur for Nina. One minute she’s sitting with Lily and the next she’s making out with a random guy in the back of the club. Nina, distraught, rushes out of the club. Lily catches up with her and hails a taxi to take them back to Nina’s apartment.
The film’s most shocking (and talked about) scene takes place once the girls get back to the apartment, get past an upset Erica, and into Nina’s room. The repercussions of this event manifest themselves the next day when Nina discovers that Lily is gone and, worse yet, that she’s late for practice at the studio. When Nina arrives, the other dancers are in the midst of practicing for the show and she discovers that another dancer has stepped in to play her role. That dancer is, of course, Lily.
Mila Kunis continues her meteoric rise through Hollywood and is closer to usurping Ashton Kutcher’s title as the most successful “That 70’s Show” alum than most people think. Exotic-looking and naturally sexy, she’s impeccably cast as Lily. Kunis’ portrayal of Lily is so effective because she’s credible as both Nina’s friend and foe. Scenes where she’s nice to Nina inevitably give way to scenes where she’s trying to backstab her and because Kunis portrays both sides so well, it makes the role-reversal all the more shocking. And in a film that aims to shock the audience at every turn, Kunis fits perfectly.
Nina’s casting as the Swan Queen is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it gives Nina, who has been an unheralded member of her ballet company for many years, a chance to be the star. It’s a curse because it attracts Thomas’ scrutiny, Erica’s zealotry, and Lily’s envy. Over the duration of the film, the pressure applied to Nina by these three characters makes her life miserable. This, of course, is in addition to the already considerable amount of pressure Nina has put on herself. She’s cognizant of the opportunity lying before her. Furthermore, her obsession with perfection means that she’ll do anything to master her role.
The interesting thing about the film’s title is that it’s not a reference to Nina, nor is it a reference to the character from Swan Lake. The Black Swan is a unique character in the film. What exactly is it? It might be a malevolent entity residing within Nina, much like a demon. Or it might be a disturbed split personality, the result of mental illness. The film leaves it open to interpretation.
(Personally, I prefer the “malevolent entity” angle. Black Swan is a film that’s not short on supernatural events and imagery, and I think it’s more fun to believe that all those events and all that imagery is real, instead of imaginary. Though I do think the “mental illness” angle has merit. Just saying the “malevolent entity” angle is more fun).
The Black Swan makes its presence known to Nina throughout the film. One way is that it distorts things Nina sees. An example would be when Nina ventures into her mother’s room and several paintings of her, produced by Erica, hauntingly come to life and the imagery starts moving around and speaking. Also, there are several instances when Nina looks in the mirror and sees her reflection act independently of her body, as well as gruesome injuries that aren’t really there.
Startling as these methods are, they aren’t the most pronounced method the Black Swan uses to get Nina’s attention. That distinction lies with the instances where the Black Swan “projects” itself onto other people. Among these instances are when Nina passes a stranger on the street and looks at Lily at various points in the film and sees herself instead of the stranger and Lily. If Nina didn’t already sense the Black Swan’s presence, she certainly does after it projects itself onto somebody. It’s as if the Black Swan is whispering, "Hey, I’m right here. And I can make everything better. All you have to do is let me out."
While the nature of the Black Swan may be up for debate, there’s no question about what it offers. Simply put, it gives Nina the opportunity to supplant the characteristics of the White Swan, the “good girl” persona that defines her. Also, letting the Black Swan out will not only get Thomas, Erica, and Lily off her back, it will be the missing piece in her quest to achieve perfection as the Swan Queen. It would essentially be like pressing the “Easy Button.”
However, letting out the Black Swan is like making a deal with the devil; even though you’re getting exactly what you want, you’re still making a deal with the devil. It’s not a good thing. Nina is aware of this. The visions and projections she sees, courtesy of the Black Swan, terrify her. Also, the persona of the Black Swan is so far afield from her natural persona of the White Swan that Nina is hesitant to make any sort of change. If she were to let out the Black Swan, she might not even recognize herself.
But everyone has a breaking point. The pressure applied to Nina by her tormentors increases as the film progresses and the Black Swan’s attempts to get Nina’s attention grow more frequent and more pronounced. This is a reason why the aforementioned scene involving Lily taking Nina out to the clubs is particularly critical. Nina was compelled to go to the clubs because she’d had a rough day dealing with Thomas at the studio and her mother at home. The person that took her out to the clubs was Lily – the person in the film the Black Swan projects onto more than any other, which is fitting because Lily is essentially the Black Swan personified. So, when Nina follows Lily into the abyss of debauchery that is the New York club scene – a world completely foreign to Nina, but one the Black Swan would be at home in – it’s a key point in her development as a character, because it illustrates that she’s starting to crack under the pressure, is making decisions she wouldn’t normally make, and is weakening to the Black Swan’s influence.
Of course, Nina’s night out with Lily ends up being a traumatizing experience (due to the drugs, memory loss, and unscrupulous men), with Nina rushing out of the club, at her most vulnerable point in the entire film. The Black Swan sees an opportunity for escape. And it seizes it.
Once they get back to Nina’s room, Lily and Nina’s passions erupt. They start kissing and stripping off each other’s clothing. Nina’s visions intensify along with the tryst. The tattoo on Lily’s back springs to life, her inked bird wings flapping like real ones. Soon, Nina doesn’t see Lily at all, but only herself, as the Black Swan projects onto Lily. And through the act of sex, Nina finally lets the Black Swan out. Goosebumps soon start rippling underneath Nina’s skin, feathers appearing ready to burst through her flesh at any second, and her legs twist and snap painfully into appendages more closely resembling those of a swan. In the chaos, Nina hits her head, knocking herself out, which is the reason she’s late to the studio the next day.
Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Nina is Oscar-worthy. The way Portman portrays Nina – childlike, timid, her voice rarely rising above a whisper – not only conveys why Nina is the perfect White Swan, but heightens the terror of everything that happens to her, because it doesn’t seem like she’s equipped to deal with any of it. There are points in the film where you just want to leap in and rescue her. Additionally, just as Nina had to portray the Black Swan, Portman does, too. And, to my knowledge, she didn’t have the benefit of a malevolent entity residing within her. Portman’s Black Swan/Nina is as believable as her White Swan/Nina and it’s one of the things that makes the film so great. And her performance so unforgettable.
The conclusion of the film dovetails beautifully with the plot of Swan Lake. As the story of Swan Lake goes, the White Swan and the Swan King fall in love, but the Black Swan manages to trick the King into believing that she is the White Swan, and they fall in love instead. Distraught that she has lost her lover, the White Swan kills herself. In the performance of Swan Lake in the film, Nina takes the stage in Act One as the White Swan and dances admirably, turning in the performance everyone knew she was capable of. The audience is engaged, but not enthralled.
It’s during Act Two that Nina must take the stage as the Black Swan. Sensing its moment, the Black Swan begins to assert itself in Nina more forcefully than ever before. Nina is in the throes of a metamorphosis during the act break. When she takes the stage in Act Two, her eyes have turned blood-red and Goosebumps are rippling wildly underneath her skin, soon giving way to long, black feathers. Nina gives the performance of a lifetime. Dancing with a manic energy and little of the taciturn precision that inundated her performance as the White Swan (and as a dancer throughout her career), Nina casts a spell over the entire audience. At the end of the act, they erupt into a frenzied cheer, with a voracious hunger for more of the fantastic Black Swan.
But the act is over. The curtains close. For the show’s final act, she’s back to being the White Swan. Although she turns in another fine performance, it soon becomes clear that something is very wrong with Nina in the minutes following the show’s conclusion. Nina is lying on the ground and her white costume is slowing turning crimson, thanks to the blood oozing from a wound to her mid-section. It becomes clear that the wound was self-inflicted, as Nina stabbed herself with a shard of glass from a broken mirror in her dressing room prior to taking the stage.
And it’s because the audience had fallen in love with the Black Swan. Just as the Swan King did.
The Black Swan did its job. It took control of Nina and remade her in its image. But it was never out to do her a favor. It didn’t care that Nina was struggling to master the role of the Swan Queen and needed help. All the Black Swan wanted was its release from the recesses of Nina’s mind and body, and to put on one hell of a performance. In this respect, the Black Swan was Nina’s greatest adversary all along -- not Lily, Erica, or Thomas -- because its aim was always to out-do her.
In the end, the thing that saved Nina also led to her demise. The great irony of the film, though, is that Nina doesn’t seem to care. As she lies dying, the only thing she seems to care about is the fact that she was “perfect.” And, in a way, she’s right. She was perfect. She didn’t just perform Swan Lake.
She lived it.
Black Swan is Darren Aronofsky’s best film and his actors turn in some of the best work of their careers, particularly Portman. It will be an awards darling at next month’s Oscars, to be sure. And it will deserve all the accolades it receives. Because just as Nina pulled off a perfect performance, I think Aronofsky just may have pulled off a perfect film, or one very close to it.