Plot New York, present day. Nina Sayers is a young dancer of the prestigious New York City Ballet Company. The director, Thomas Leroy, is holding auditions for the Swan Queen, the lead role of Swan Lake. Nina is eager to get the part and competes for it. Thomas tells Nina that her White Swan is perfect but she lacks the sensuality and passion necessary for the Black Swan. When Thomas forcibly kisses Nina, she bites his lip. Thomas is left shocked but impressed, and the next day, Nina gets the part. Thomas remains unsatisfied with her frigid performance of the Black Swan and wants her to lose herself. Suffering from stress and an inability to inhabit the role, Nina experiences dark and disturbing hallucinations. Lily, a new dancer of the company, appears to possess the required personality for the Black Swan. The relationship between Nina and Lily is cold and competitive. Lily invites Nina to a night out and slips a capsule of ecstasy into her drink. Later that night, Nina fights with her mother, locks herself in her room, and has sex with Lily. At the ballet studio, Nina finds Lily in the Swan Queen costume, performing her routine. Nina confronts Lily and realizes that she hallucinated their sexual intercourse. Nina is convinced that Lily is trying to steal the role from her. Her disturbing hallucinations become stronger and provoke in her a fit of hysteria. On the opening night, Nina is confident and audacious. After performing the first act, she finds Lily in her dressing room putting on the Black Swan’s makeup. They fight, and Nina stabs Lily in the chest. She hides the bleeding body and returns on stage to perform the Black Swan with passion and sensuality. Back in her dressing room before the final act, Lily comes to congratulate Nina on her performance. Nina realises she has had deluded thoughts and stabbed herself, imagining it was Lily. Despite her wound, she performs the last act beautifully. Nina receives a standing ovation, while Thomas and the rest of the cast gather to congratulate her. Lying on the floor, Nina is severely bleeding. As she dies, she quietly utters, “I was perfect”.
Film note In the build up to the 83rd Academy Awards, producers silenced Natalie Portman’s ballet double, Sarah Lane. The move paid off and Black Swan’s star took home the award for Best Actress, with Portman praised for her physical commitment to the role. Controversy followed with Lane claiming her craft, which she had studied for 22 years, had been tarnished by suggestions that it could be mastered in just a year and a half (qtd. in Farley). For the producers, however, any ethical hang-ups will have been allayed by the resultant accolade, which drew crowds to a relatively low budget film, unable to mount a substantial advertising campaign. The success also helped to cement Darren Aronofsky’s reputation as one of the most exciting contemporary directors, able once again to bring a standout performance from his lead actor.
Marketing is posited by Richard Maltby as a key element in what he calls, “a dynamic matrix of conflicting voices” that, along with production company, producer, actor, story and budget, must be negotiated in the creation of a film product with a necessarily “commercial aesthetic” (35). “Within such a system,“ Maltby argues, “the most interesting products are likely to be those in which the story is simple but the subtexts are disturbingly complex” (35). The story of Black Swan is, indeed, relatively simple. It follows the ascendancy of an ambitious young ballerina of the New York Ballet Company, who struggles to come to terms with her own identity when faced with the challenge of embodying both the White Swan and the Black Swan in a production of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. However, the film is evidently constructed with a great deal of complexity and subtlety. It is the result of a significant diversity of concepts and ideas, both industrial and creative, which, combined to create a thematically coherent and viscerally engaging whole.
Creative freedom Darren Aronofsky began his directorial career in the 1990s, by which time the notion of an ‘independent cinema’ was prominent and flourishing within American film culture. His first two features Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000) are testament to this mode of film production, their respective budgets of $60,000 and $4.5m having been financed primarily by donations from family and friends or by independent investors. The resulting freedom led to two stylistically original films, which were both commercially and critically successful. With this, Aronofsky had caught the attention of Warner Bros. Pictures. The major Hollywood studio helped to finance his follow-up The Fountain (2006). This attempt to step away from completely independent filmmaking did not go entirely to plan. Although the director had a far greater budget of $35m to work with and Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in the lead roles, the film performed poorly at the box office and received mixed reviews from critics. Aronofsky returned to his independent approach to filmmaking for his fourth feature, The Wrestler (2008). With a relatively small budget of $6m it was the director’s highest grossing film to date and received critical acclaim.
Black Swan was itself made semi-independently, in compliance with Aronofsky’s established tendency to thrive with relatively little financial backing and increased creative freedom. The production was not without its difficulties; with a restricted budget of $13m and a production schedule of forty days, Aronofsky called it “[his] hardest film to execute” (qtd. In DP/30). Cross Creek Pictures, an independent film production company, and Fox Searchlight Pictures, financed the film after the previous investor, Universal Studios, backed out with just four weeks until production was set to commence. Fox Searchlight is itself a subdivision of the major American film studio 20th Century Fox. It was established in the mid-1990s when the major studios “started to invest in independent production [and] created speciality divisions to develop, produce, and distribute the types of films that would previously have been made without corporate sponsorship” (Berra 23).
The script for Black Swan was created on the basis of two primary sources, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Double (1997) and Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake (1877). The Double, first published in 1846, tells the story of a man who wakes up one morning to find that his ‘double’ or ‘doppelganger’ has taken over his life. The narrative is told from the main character’s perspective, plunging the reader into his chaotic and frenzied state of mind as he is humiliated and menaced by his doppelganger. Aronofsky was inspired by this story of stolen identity, and had been considering a film adaptation long before he saw Tchaikovsky’s ballet. Swan Lake follows the story of a black swan who steals the identity of a white swan in order to seduce and steal her prince. The fact that the same dancer performs both parts aligned the two disparate narratives within the director’s mind, resulting in his decision to centre his narrative on a production of the ballet. Aronofsky undertook a major challenge, reworking the music and narrative of Tchaikovsky’s ballet and turning it into something much darker in tone. It is this “pairing of the composed beauty of ballet with the dark compulsive side of humans” (Prochnow) that makes Black Swan such a unique and distinctive film.
Black Swan borrows heavily from Powell and Pressberger’s The Red Shoes (1948). Both films deeply connect their audiences to the art form of ballet, share an obsession with mirrors, and depict a passionate ballerina who “pays the price for attempting to smash opposites together” (Mullen 49). Overt stylistic references are made to the film, including the dynamic point-of-view shots from Nina’s perspective as she performs for the domineering artistic director Thomas which are lifted directly from the scene in The Red Shoes when Vicky performs for the equally overbearing Lermontov. Black Swan also draws upon the film’s iconography to portray Nina’s decent into madness. In the middle of an uncontrollable fit of hysteria, Nina violently throws her ballerina music box on the floor, breaking the ballerina in half. A leg and shoe remain, invoking images of Lermontov’s sculpture of the ballet shoe, an object used in The Red Shoes to imply a crucial rupture between art and reality. Two other films also helped to shape the stylistic appearance of the film. The use of a single spotlight to illuminate a dancer’s performance in a dark, square room in the opening scene is a direct reference to Swan Lake (1957), a soviet film production of the ballet. Whilst the proliferation of close-ups of dancing feet and shoes is reminiscent of Donya Feuer’s documentary, The Dancer (1994). Aronofsky also cites Roman Polanski’s Pschological thrillers Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976) as major reference points for the creation of the film’s tone and atmosphere (Directing Black Swan). As in Polanski’s films, the audience is refused a comforting distance from Nina’s obsessive mental state. Instead they are forced to share her perspective creating a visceral sensation of claustrophobia and anxiety.
Imperfect reflections Much like Nina herself, Black Swan does not concern itself with life outside of the Ballet Company. The film’s narrow focus could therefore be read as apolitical in refusing to engage with the contemporaneous political issues in the United States. Yet, as previously mentioned, the film builds complexity into its simple story. The film arguably creates an indirect reflection of a society’s state of mind in the aftermath of traumatic events through its penchant to delve deep into its protagonist’s psyche – the “haunting fractured world of delusions, doubles and paranoia” (Production Notes). If Nina is losing control of her mind and is unable to distinguish reality from illusion, American society is, too, living (and reliving) the horrific events of 9/11 like a deluded dream (or rather nightmare). The focus on the heavily competitive world of ballet can also be read as a cipher for the reality of the job market in the fallout of the Global Financial Crisis. In 2008, the United States entered into a difficult period of recession and low employment, which continued into the 21st century. The fear of being replaced by someone who is better, stronger or prettier is therefore a phenomenon that would have been immediately relatable for the contemporaneous audience.
The motif of mirrors is explicit throughout the film, with a mirror or reflective surface appearing in almost every scene. Mirrors hold a crucial place in the world of ballet, being essential for the dancers to “constitute their selves”, whilst simultaneously setting up “the world of ballet as a world of reflection” (Christiansen 309). For Nina, mirrors are not only a means to achieve the perfect performance. They also act to constantly confront her with her own image as she gradually loses sense of who she is. Nina is haunted by projections of herself through a growing obsession with the “passionate other” (Nelson 30). This is brought to life in the film by Nina’s doppelganger, Lily, who is the catalyst for her identity crisis and subsequent mental instability. Nina is Lily’s physical reflection, but although they may be similar in appearance, Lily is the black swan to Nina’s white swan. She possesses all of the attributes, the sensuality and the assertiveness, that Nina does not have at the beginning of the narrative.
When Lily becomes Nina’s understudy, Thomas’ comment to his Swan Queen that “the only person standing in your way is you” enhances Nina’s irrational fears. The climax of Nina’s identity crisis is reached when Nina stabs Lily in her dressing room. Pushing Lily violently in another fit of hysteria, Nina not only breaks the mirror in its literal sense, but she also crucially breaks the metaphorical mirror that reflects her opposite but matching self. Nina symbolically stabs Lily with a shard of the shattered mirror and, for Barbara A. Nelson, “in performing the stabbing, Nina becomes the passionate other (31). Lily and Nina, the Black Swan and the White Swan, finally become one. Nina is now free to give her firs and last performance as the Swan Queen with pure perfection. Yet it comes at a cost as illusion inevitably “bleeds into reality” as Nina is overwhelmed by her mental illness (Nelson 31).
Multiple personalities It is interesting to note that Aronofsky began discussions about the project with Natalie Portman in 2000. Had it been produced sooner Black Swan would have fallen into a cycle of films including Fight Club (1999), Girl Interrupted (1999) and Me, Myself and Irene (2000) that deal with similar instances of mental breakdown. As it is, positioning Black Swan within a definite genre or cycle of films is complicated. The production notes posit that the film is a thriller, but one that takes place “in the least expected of realms […] far from the typical [thriller]”, which is apparently “set in a world of crime or haunted houses”. Aronofsky’s film somewhat contrastingly takes place in the world of dance. It is possible to identify a cycle of dance films in Hollywood that were released at a similar time to Black Swan, including Step Up (2006), Take the Lead (2006), Fame (2009), StreetDance 3D (2010), Footloose (2011), Go For It (2011) and Battlefield America (2011) . These films similarly place the spectacle of dance as central to their narratives, with dance a tool through which young protagonists define themselves. Yet the overall tone of Black Swan is markedly different. In these films the spectacle of dance is constructed for the viewer’s pleasure, favouring distant long shots of the dancers. In Black Swan however imposing and disorienting close-ups of Nina’s body parts persist and dance is portrayed as a negative rather than a positive agent in Nina’s life, ultimately leading to her death. If the world of ballet is commonly perceived as one of lightness, purity and innocence then Aronofsky constructs a world of horror around it. In turning its escapist dimension into a dark and frightful one, he offers a striking and effective “pairing of insanity with beauty” (Prochnow 2).
Looking back at Aronofsky’s previous films sheds further light on its apparently singular compositon. His earlier films are similarly character driven and focus intensively on the destructive nature of obsession. The site of this destruction is invariably the body. Black Swan both continues and progresses this trend. Images of split toenails, damaged feet, bleeding cuticles, skin rash, scratch marks and broken legs “attack the physical comfort zones” of the spectator, who experiences sensations of disgust and repulsion (James 34). Nina also experiences a complete physical bodily transformation into the Black Swan. Aronofsky has cited David Cronenberg as an influence and his use of the body to affect the viewer viscerally owes a great deal to the latter’s body horror films of the 1980s, including Videodrome (1983) and The Fly (1986), which possess similar narratives of mental obsession followed by physical transformation and mutation.
The powerful effect Black Swan has on its viewer is achieved through a complex combination of the psychological and the physical. In doing so, the film composes its own ballet, one between the mind and the body that raises questions of the mental stability of the individual in the 21st century. For Black Swan the “[d]ynamic matrix of conflicting voices”(Maltby 35) that gathered to make the film prove to be a strength rather than a weakness.
Aronofsky, Darren. “Directing Black Swan.” The American Society of Cinematographers. n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2012.
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Christiansen, Steen. “Body Refractions.” Academic Quarter, 3 (2011): 306-315. Print.
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Double. New York: Dover Publications. 1997. Print.
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Farley, John Christopher. “Natalie Portman’s ‘Black Swan’ Dance Double Says She Deserves More Credit.” Wall Street Journal. 26 Mar 2011. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
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James, Nick. “Review: Dancer in the Dark.” Sight and Sound, 21 (2011): 32-36. Print.
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Prochnow, Samantha Rose (2012), “I Had the Craziest Dream Last Night: A Foucauldian Analysis of Black Swan.” Digital Commons @ Cal Poly. Jun 2012. California Polytechnic State University. Web. 21 Nov. 2012.
“Production Notes: Black Swan.” Fox Searchlight Pictures. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.
Written by Virginie Pierard (2013); edited by Oliver Westlake (2014), Queen Mary, University of London.
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Copyright © 2014 Virginie Pierard/Mapping Contemporary Cinema