Black Swan Not So Black and White


Warning: Spoilers!

When people call a film a psychological thriller, they often seem to be referring to the effect it has on its viewers, in which sense a "psychological thriller" is a film that disorients you, keeps you guessing, allows you no sure footing. Sometimes there is a big reveal at the climax, a key that opens the secret door of meaning (The Sixth Sense). Other times you can find no door but the one through which you exit the theater, stumbling bleary-eyed into the parking lot, disturbed and still confused, scratching your head and asking: "What in the world just happened?"

Then there is a second kind of psychological thriller, one which concerns itself less with the mind of the audience and more with the mind of a character, and the telling of a story in which the drama is mostly psychological, that is to say related to the mind or processes of the mind, mental rather than physical.

The first kind run the risk of being cheap because they can rely too heavily on filmmaking tricks and narrative gimmicks (surrealist images, nonlinear storytelling) that seemingly have no purpose other than to bewilder or bedazzle the audience. The second run the risk of being cheap because they can rely too heavily on trite, psychoanalytical formulas that we have all learned practically by osmosis simply from living in our Freud-saturated, therapy-obsessed culture, reducing the audience to an analyst and the film, or a character in a film, to a client prone on a couch.

The two kinds can overlap of course, and often do, but rare is it to find a psycho-thriller comprising the perfect balance of both and cheap on neither front, one that intelligently and artistically depicts the drama of a mind while taking its audience on a wild ride of spellbinding suspense. This is the beauty of Black Swan. This is movie-going as more than entertainment, filmmaking as storytelling as art.

Most of the reviews I've read have described the film as a psychological thriller/horror film about a professional ballet dancer, Nina, a "good girl" in a highly competitive field who starts cracking up under the pressure when she has to go up against "bad girl" rival, Lily, for a coveted part in Swan Lake, the coveted part being the prima ballerina of course, who, in a new twist, will dance the part of both the white and the black swan. There are doubts as to whether Nina can cut it, because though her dancing is technically masterful, her poise and beauty perfect for the white swan, she supposedly lacks the natural, passionate, seductive quality required to dance the part of the black. The plot points in the film are few, but because of the rich imagistic landscape and a magical, dreamlike, nay, nightmarish touch ("Wait, did that really just happen or was that only in Nina's mind?"), one walks away knowing that the film was "about" something much bigger, much broader. But what?

What one thinks the film is really about depends largely on whom one supposes the antagonist to be. One of the things I liked most about the film, in retrospect, was that it spent the first half playing with the possibilities. Will it be the lascivious director bent on ravishing and corrupting our pristine maiden? Will it be the ageing ballerina (played by Winona Ryder) who has been forced to retire and now wants revenge on her replacement? Will it be her mother, a creepy, doting stage mom, herself a former dancer who only ever danced in the chorus, who seems incapable of seeing that her pride in her daughter's accomplishment might only be working as a thin veil for her regret, resentment, and envy? Or will the antagonist turn out to be the uninhibited "bad girl" (has tattoos, shows up late for rehearsal, smokes!) who, after befriending Nina, will betray her by stealing the part? It isn't long before one realizes that these are clichés, stock characters all of them, a sign that the film is probably working on another level.

During the first half of the film Nina seems barely conscious, getting bounced around like a silver ball in a pinball machine. They say "acting is reacting," and as the film begins, this is taken to an extreme in Nina. She has no agency whatsoever. She gets pampered and manipulated by her mom. She gets kissed and felt up by the director. She gets the lead of Swan Queen, after which she gets taken to a party and shown off on his arm like a prize. There, she gets looked at. Then she gets chewed out by the inebriated retired ballerina. Later she gets harassed by a man on the subway who makes lewd gestures at her (she responds by…continuing to sit there.) She goes to a club with Lily where she gets drugged. She gets laid (though only semiconsciously). The only things she does are: apologize, dance, squirm, apologize, dance, agree, and apologize. Oh, and she also tries to please pretty much everyone: the director (by doing as he requested, attempting to masturbate), her mom (by eating cake), Lily (by taking the drugs), and even the old, drunk ballerina, who after the party threw herself in front of a bus and is now lying completely unconscious in a dark hospital room (on an impulse of guilt, Nina shows up at the hospital and returns some of things she had stolen from her dressing room. Nina apologizes). Nina says that what she wants is to be perfect. All she is is passive.

The chromatic scheme is key: There is a lot of black and white in the film. It is easy to see Nina, referred to often as "sweet girl," our protagonist, our sheltered, earnest perfectionist with the best of intentions, as the white, and everything surrounding her as the threat, as the black. On the surface level we have a plethora of moral dualities, old-fashioned good versus evil in its many ossified forms: purity vs. depravity; chastity vs. lust; goodwill vs. envy; propriety vs. rebellion; conscience vs. inhibition; restraint vs. passion; discipline vs. freedom; innocence vs. experience; etc. Seen in this light, any of the aforementioned characters could be the antagonist, completing the duality which most commonly provides drama, which is the engine of a story: protagonist/good versus antagonist/evil. The third color, however, is pink. There is an awful lot of pink. Nina's bedroom is like a cloud of cotton candy. Only a Care Bear® could live there (and not go insane). It is the pink that, to my mind, offers the key to the door of meaning (a door from which her mother later removes the doorknob in an effort to trap Nina and prevent her from taking the stage on opening night, but I'll get to that in a minute).

The world of pink is the world of ballerinas, is the world of little girls, is the world of the hyper feminine. It is a world from which most girls are ejected when they reach a certain age. I can't tell you how many times I've talked with other women about the love I had for dancing when I was a girl, and in those conversations how many of them have said something like, "Yeah, I was serious about ballet until the seventh grade, when my teacher told my parents I should take up something else. My boobs ruined that dream. I started playing the flute." There are variations. "I gained weight" or "I'm all hips." For me, it was my height. Can you imagine a male dancer trying to lift a woman who is 5’9"? It would be like watching someone try to pick up a tree.

Ballet dancers are muscular, athletic, and incredibly tough, yes, but the qualities we most often associate with them are the more classically feminine qualities of grace, softness, delicacy, lightness, flexibility (which is to say pliability) and formality. They are not vulgar. They are proper. They are not free. They, literally, have bound feet. There are set steps in ballet. They have pretty, sophisticated French names. One memorizes them, and every ballet is made up of a combination of those steps. Ballerinas are obviously also tiny in stature and, when they are not wearing the skin-tight leotards that show off their sinewy musculature, could be mistaken from a distance for little girls. On stage their skin looks like porcelain. Why, ballerinas are sugar and spice and everything nice, what every little girl should be made of!

So is it really that shocking when the retired ballerina lying prostrate in her hospital bed picks up the nail file that Nina returns to her and starts screaming, jabbing it into her cheek repeatedly, stabbing herself in the face? Well, yes. It is a horror film after all. But after the shock of it wore off, I couldn't help chuckling quietly in my seat with some dark delight. Oh, come on now old, drunk ballerina, that is not very ladylike of you! I was reminded of something I once read about Saint Margaret of Hungary: Beautiful, wanted, importuned by suitors, she threatened to mutilate her face with a knife if her father forced her to marry. Ha! How's that for agency?

Womanhood is not pink and fluffy. It is red and wet, sodden with blood. Red is to womanhood as hyper-femininity is to pink, and if I haven't convinced you of that (something of which, admittedly, you probably needed little convincing), then try picturing a pregnant ballerina and you'll get my gist, see how absurd it would be, how diametrically opposed these two worlds, on a symbolic level, really are. So, there it must be: The conflict here is not a simple case of "man versus man" as we so often expect from Hollywood, but (wo)man versus society! Society is the antagonist, represented in microcosm by the world of ballet and symbolically by the infantilizing mother, both of which prize and reward those hyper-feminine qualities, both behavioral and physical, associated with little girls, thereby wreaking havoc on our female protagonist's psyche as she comes of age and to terms with her own body and experiences a sexual awakening. Right?

Not quite.

Here's my problem with that: Then what to make of the director? This handsome devil, the puppet master of the ballet, the very epitome of power in the film (feminism flash: patriarchy! patriarchy!) is not trying to suffocate her "inner black swan" in a world of proper primness and feminine passivity; rather, he is trying to bring it out. He is encouraging those qualities not associated with the hyper feminine: aggression, action, impulse, desire. He tells her to stop apologizing. Now I suppose one could aver that he is doing so only out of personal interest, not because he wants her to be the best Swan Queen she can be but because he's a lecher who seduced (and has now discarded) the prior prima ballerina, and that he wants Nina to stop being so "frigid" as a dancer and by extension as a woman simply because that would make it easier for him to get in her pants, or would make her a better lay, or whatever. But I'm not buying it. There's more there. Because one night when they are rehearsing, he is given the perfect opportunity to, shall we say, fluff her feathers – heck, she almost asks him to (there is the phrase muttered breathlessly: "No, wait. Please.") – but he refuses, walks away. She is left standing there alone, bun intact.

I think it's safe to say that, as many others have noted, the conflict is a clear case of (wo)man versus self. Protagonist and antagonist are one, two sides of the same character. The real drama is related to Nina's mind and the processes of her mind, internal rather than external. Thus the "plot points" of the story, especially with regard to the other characters, matter much less than the internal conflict, the struggle happening within. To a large extent what happens in the external world of the film can be understood as "real" only insofar as it reflects or mirrors the very real drama going on inside; much of it is projection and therefore symbolic. Much of it is also over-the-top and would border on hokey if it hadn't been so artfully executed. Distortion and exaggeration are effective devices. Flannery O'Connor said that the "grotesque" is about "using the concrete in a more drastic way." Few can pull it off. If you can, it's powerful.

So, anyway, the conflict in this story must be an id/ego thing then, right? The black swan is the instinctual, hot-blooded, impulsive id associated with the raw sexual energy and desire, encouraged by the masculine character of the director and represented by Lily, the rival, while the white swan, Nina, is the superego of civilized restraint, the feminine as moral guard trying to keep the id in check. Is the story about these two facets of Nina's personality fighting for control of her self? I'm no psychologist, and I'm not even much of a film buff, but I would venture to say that though we're getting closer, we're not there yet. Bear with me!

It can't all come down to that. It just can't! It's too easy. I say this because of a particular scene that happens near the end of the film. This is after Nina's mother, on opening night, locks herself in the Care Bear® bedroom with Nina and removes the doorknob (for Nina's own good, of course!) Nina beats up her mother, finds the doorknob, and escapes, but not before slamming her mother's fingers in the door a few times (crunch!) just for good measure, leaving her screaming in agony on the floor. She doesn't storm but rather struts out of the apartment, exclaiming: "I'm the Swan Queen! You never even left the chorus!" (It's a violent, sick scene, but kind of funny, too, in a B-movie kind of way.) Nina arrives at the theatre, takes her seat in the dressing room, and starts calmly applying her make-up, insisting to the director as he questions her that she feels fine and is ready to perform. As the momentum builds (it really starts soaring here), Nina begins dancing the part of the white swan. She is very nervous. At the end, she falls. She messes up big time. She is worried and ashamed. Backstage, she sees the director coming toward her, asking what went wrong. Nina points, blames her partner: "He dropped me!" Not the noblest thing to do, but hey, at least she didn't apologize. We see this as progress. There is hope for Nina.

Then, it is time for her transformation. It is time for her to become the black swan! There is a moment, a brilliant moment, an astounding moment, and this is the moment I was talking about, which is disturbing and penetrating, when we begin to understand her fear. She is backstage, right? Walking toward her down a long, dark corridor is a monster, a scary demon-like thing wearing a black, hooded cape, with a hideous black mask instead of a face. There is something phallic about it, a weird snout or something (if I remember correctly…or is this review becoming a wild ride through my mind? Who's to say?) We have seen this monster in the film once before, late one night when Nina was obsessively rehearsing by herself and she walked down a dark corridor of the studio to find the director f*cking (sorry, please pardon my not-so-pretty French, no other word will suffice, oh wait, I'm apologizing, I take that back!) Lily, the bad girl rival. When Nina sees them, the director turns to look at her and he has the face of this monster! And now, here it is again: the monster! the embodiment of "black"! the id! instinct! lust! Dionysian debauchery!, whatever you want to call it, walking straight toward her down a long, dark hallway and what does Nina do? She walks right past it without blinking an eye. He passes on the left, just another dancer in a costume getting ready to perform. What Nina homes in on in this scene is the other women, the chorus girls who are filing past on her right, all in white leotards, all interchangeable, one after another, and what…are they – are they snickering at her? It's hard to tell. Their faces are somewhat obscured, but they seem to be glancing at her, shyly or with contempt or curiosity or – knowing? But we think we hear snickering, something. Why? Because she fell? Because she isn't good enough? Because they're jealous? We don't know. Only Nina knows, because they're not really snickering. It's something in her mind.

What we do know is that there is some kind of pressure exerted by these girls filing past her, more accurately by a nameless, faceless chorus, which Nina senses and finds disturbing or threatening or dark. In this moment, we feel her aloneness. She is the Swan Queen, what she always wanted to be; yet, this also makes her the odd (wo)man out. Does it tempt her, that former state, the familiar womb of white and wash? Does a part of her want to be going that way, the other way, with them? Because how much easier would it be to be in their group? Would anyone in the audience even notice if one of them messed up? This moment, combined with the violent scene of the vanquishing of the mother, suggests that it is something in herself that Nina has to conquer, and that the something has less to do with primal urges or masculine this or feminine that than it does with what is represented by the anonymous, interchangeable girls in the chorus, which she once was and is no longer.

When Nina becomes the black swan, it is a dizzying, dazzling thrill. Everything in the film works, clicks, soars. It is perfect: the acting, the pacing, the music, costumes, cinematography, special effects.* By this time, I was breathless! I've heard it said that the film is about child abuse, sexual awakening, the id, many things, but as the bloody rash on Nina's shoulder blade (which she had so far been trying to conceal) began to ripple and spread, but bloodlessly, like goose bumps (which you can get either from a physical experience, like when you are exposed and cold, or from a mental experience, like when you are afraid or excited or terribly thrilled) transforming her porcelain skin and causing her to sprout little black hairs all over her arms and back and neck (Somebody, please, get this girl a plastic pink razor!), as she fluttered her arms and opened her chest, growing the thick, black plumage (No, wait. Please…don't!), and was lifted up so high that she rose above the chorus encircling her below, their faces looking up now completely unmenacingly, hers exhibiting not only confidence but steely reserve, it seemed clear to me that the film was not just about becoming a woman but about becoming an individual, and the capacity for self-assertion that is required to do so; the psychological trauma (perhaps amplified when you are a woman, expected to be "sweet") that goes along with that; the guilt we inevitably carry if we dare to develop into independent and critical beings, separate from our teachers and parents and friends and colleagues; and finally, the fierceness that is required to break away from the pack, a fierceness which indeed at times can feel like violence.

What a different Nina we see at the end (Bravo, Natalie Portman! Bravo!) from the Nina we saw at the beginning, the Nina who upon discovering that she had been selected for the part of Swan Queen locked herself in a bathroom stall and cried secret tears of joy, hiding as if she was ashamed. When she emerges from that stall, she sees the word "WHORE" written across the mirror in either blood or lipstick, something red. At the time, we think it might have been written by the former prima ballerina or a chorus girl out of jealously, but by the end we understand it was more likely a projection of Nina's self-reprimand and guilt. At the end of her performance, she looks out and sees her mother in the audience, enjoying her performance placidly and with pride. It is not the face of a woman who has just returned from the emergency room, having been assaulted and terrorized by her own sweet girl.

On opening night, Nina does not ask permission from anyone to perform, not the mother, not the director. When she messes up, she refuses to apologize. She is not perfect, but she goes on. She blocks out the snickers, whether real or imagined. And it becomes clear that Lily, her rival, is actually a supportive if not kindred spirit, not a sinister threat at all. However, the performance is still a battle. I enjoyed one last furtive good laugh when Nina spots a sea of blood seeping out from beneath a door in her dressing room (she has killed something, it is in there, it is dead or dying); she grabs a fluffy, pink towel and shoves it in front of the door like she is trying to stop smoke in a burning building. Ha! You're going to need more than that to stop this hemorrhaging, honey!

So, does the black swan win out in the end? I don't think so. Not necessarily. After Nina performs the role of the black swan (indeed, perfectly!), we see her again in her white swan costume, and this is the costume she is wearing when the film ends. The viewer is kept guessing, the last surprise being that the antagonist is not the bad girl/black swan after all, as one might expect, nor is it the good girl/white swan. Something else has to be killed if our heroine is going to have any hope of becoming an individual, of surviving in this world and living on her own terms. And herein lies the difference between getting and taking: landing the part, performing beautifully, getting the applause, these things aren't enough. All of that the white swan could have done on her own. The role demands that Nina integrate the two, the black and the white, because only the Swan Queen, powered by both, can take the stage. In the process the "sweet girl" must die. Nina must kill her, and that she does.

Is this story a tragedy? Hardly!

More like triumph! I say: "Good riddance."

*This was another thing I loved about the film. The special effects were minimal, and the nightmarish moments they created in extended reality were not simply repressed or twisted memories harkening back to a mysterious plot point that happened before the film began – I am thinking, for example, of Shutter Island – to be revealed and fully explained later on in the film, thus acting as a flashback and a bit of foreshadowing, and serving an expository function all at once. The special effects in Black Swan were used to bolster the thematic content of the film, not to complete the narrative arc. They were about imagery, not memory. Did I mention I really like this film?