Black Swan (2010)
Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Nina is a ballerina working in a New York ballet company with aspirations of maybe becoming the lead dancer one day. Her chances arrive sooner than she realizes when prima ballerina Beth, aging and bitter about what the director has made her do over the years, is pushed aside for Nina in the lead role of Swan Lake. Thomas, the company’s director, is growing increasingly frustrated with what he says is Nina’s constraining inhibitions. While technically perfect she lacks the passion he wants to see and uses new company member Lily as an example of real emotion in the work. Nina’s mother doesn’t help things by creating a perpetual childhood in their apartment, treating the young woman the same as she did when Nina was a girl. All of this pressure begins to show the cracks in Nina’s psyche as she glimpses a shadow-self, a doppelganger wandering the streets living a life parallel to our protagonist. What is real and what is in the life of the mind begin to blur and dissolve.
I have still found myself unable to pin down exactly how I feel about filmmaker Darren Aronofsky. There are some pretty great films under his belt yet there is a sense of bloated self-indulgence running as a throughline in all of them. Mother! was the most blatantly bombastic and eye-rolling when it came to working with themes and metaphor. That most recent film felt awkward, like a less experienced artist playing with ideas rather than someone of Aronofsky’s experience who should show a little more deftness in how they handle their work. Going back almost a decade to Black Swan that overt telling is very apparent but not as “hammer over your head” as mother! was.
Duality is a major theme of Black Swan, first in the actual play with the Swan Princess character and then with Nina’s menacing other self that she sees on the subway and in mirrors, eventually physically grappling with. Nina is additionally paralleled with three other female characters: Lily, Beth, and her mother. Lily is the most obvious comparison because we see how she morphs into Nina during the hallucinations. Lily is the relaxed and joyous person Nina wants to be but is held back mainly by herself.
Beth is a pretty clear parallel, the Ghost of Christmas Future, showing Nina what she could become in the clutches of Thomas. Beth has been abused in many ways by Thomas and finally has some modicum of strength to begin to stand up for herself. She eventually starts to see how powerless she is against the more dominant male figure in the conflict so throws herself in front of a car as her only form of protest. Historically suicide as a protest has been a tactic used by many women in seemingly unwinnable situations. Sadly Beth doesn’t die but ends up broken and stitched back together, laying in a hospital bed that Nina visits. Nina’s two encounters in this hospital room display a shift in her personality: first as a terrified and frightened girl and the second as a vicious woman who will not succumb to her supposed inevitable future.
Finally, we have Nina juxtaposed against her mother. We get bits and pieces of Erica’s past as a once-promising ballerina herself who still dresses and wears her hair like the dancers we see in Nina’s company. Erica’s sanctum is a room where she paints Nina’s portrait over and over, trying out different styles, yet always producing works that don’t have any real life in them or difference between each other. We can see that Nina herself is an attempted reproduction of Erica, a second chance to be the dancer she was never able to be. Nina is fully aware of these manipulations and in the third act finally turns on her mother allowing all of her pent up frustrations to explode.
The black swan theory is a metaphor used to describe events that exist as outliers to predictable occurrences. The name comes from an ancient Roman saying that black swans did not exist and eventually black swans were discovered. Common examples used as black swan events are the rise and prominence of the Internet in daily life, September 11th, and World War I. These were all events that either happened so suddenly or so subtly that we couldn’t immediately fathom the long-lasting repercussions. So what is the black swan in this film? I don’t think it is Nina, but rather an unnamed presence that looms throughout the film, it circles Nina, but its menace is present in almost every character we’re presented with. While Aronofsky builds to a loud booming conclusion, there is still some ambiguity to be explored here.