(The Quest for Perfection in) Black Swan In Depth Review

Black Swan

(Spoilers! This is an In-Depth review and and in an attempt to prove a theory will discuss in detail several plot points. If you haven’t seen Black Swan, do not read this. Instead, go out and see it.)

First off I think its a shame most people who don’t see this will probably just dismiss it as ‘that movie about ballet’ and people who see it and don’t like it will probably just dismiss it as ‘that crazy movie about ballet’.  I would like to make the claim it isn’t simply ‘about ballet’.

Sure, ballet is a big, nay, huge part of the movie. It is a huge part of the movie in the same way Aronofsky’s Requim for a Dream isn’t simply ‘about drugs’ but rather about addiction. And yet, even to its biggest fans and supporters, Requim is often referred to as ‘that (crazy) movie about drugs’.

So what is Black Swan about, if not just simply ballet? Well its pretty obvious, since they bring it up a couple times in the movie. Perfection. No great insight there. But what my thesis is, is that everything in this movie is about the central character’s Quest for Perfection (Q4P).

The Story: Nina Sayers likes ballet dancing, gets the role of the Swan Queen, yatta yatta yatta, she gives her greatest (and final) performance ever.

Instead of breaking down the story scene by scene (better suited for a commentary track) I will just discuss certain elements one at a time. I also would like to introduce the idea that this movie is divided into Three Acts and what those acts accomplish.

The First Act – Opening scene to roughly the Congratulatory party for Nina (around the 33 minute mark).

The first act is ‘planting the seeds’, establishing everything that will come back full force in the end.

The Seed of Doubt – She can dance the White Swan, but can she dance the Black Swan?

The Seed of Competition – The other girls want her to fail and want her role, closely related to Seed of Doubt

The Seed of Seduction – Seduction plays a big part of this movie, as Nina must seduce certain characters and the audience.

The Seed of Control – Nina’s mother tries to control her life or live vicariously through her

The Seed of Physicality – Early on we see Nina struggling with changing her physicality (broken toes/hangnails)

 

The Second Act – Thomas’ apartment to Lily being Nina’s alternate (around the 1hr15minute mark)

The second act is ‘watering the seeds’ and raising the stakes on them.

The Seed of Doubt – More talk of perfect White Swan but Doubtful of Black Swan

The Seed of Competition – Lily being Nina’s understudy

The Seed of Seduction – Thomas seducing Nina, the Nina/Lily love scene

The Seed of Control – The mother becoming more overbearing

The Seed of Physicality – The goosebumps/scratches becoming bigger

 

The Third Act – When The Light’s get shut off the night before Nina’s performance to the end (1hr42 minute mark)

The third act is where all the seeds come to ‘full fruition’ and are overcome/fully embraced.

The Seed of Doubt – Being dropped in Swan Lake’s first act. Overcome by second act.

The Seed of Competition – Lily being the understudy ready to go on as Swan Queen

The Seed of Seduction – Nina seducing audience and kissing Thomas

The Seed of Control – Mother locking up Nina

The Seed of Physicality – Nina physically becoming The Black Swan

Keep in mind these are just some examples and the movie does not waste any scene. Each scene in the movie either plants or waters a seed leading to the tour de force that is the final twenty minutes where Nina overcomes every obstacle and literally becomes The Black Swan.

Perspective and Reflections:

In the behind the scenes features on Requim for a Dream, Hubert Selby Jr., author of the book it is based on (Last Exit to Brooklyn) says something along these lines, “The word ‘iris’ that we use for a part of the human eye comes from the Greek or Latin for ‘fountain’, which means our eyes aren’t used to ‘see’ the world but rather project what we want to see out onto it.”

Understanding this is fundamental to understanding Black Swan. This entire movie is from the Point of view of Nina Sayers, there is not one scene without her in it. Other character motivations (and indeed hallucinations) may be exaggerated because this is what she is viewing her world as.

Another argument I would like to make throughout the course of this review is that Nina Sayers is in charge of everything she does. I hear the term ‘Mental Illness’ or ‘Nervous Breakdown’ thrown around a lot and I disagree with this. There are two instances specifically where Nina gathers her composure and shows exactly how in charge she is. The first one is when she is in the bathroom, after getting out of the tub, and starts cutting her nails. Her mom enters the apartment and calls out for her and Nina in a moment of desperation, gathers up all her composure and that last look she gives into the mirror shows how in control she really is.

The second moment (there are more, but the second of my examples) is right before she goes on stage as The Black Swan. Having just stabbed Lily/Dark Nina, Nina drags her body into the shower and starts freaking out and sobbing only to slowly and literally become The Black Swan.

A lot of people will probably leave this movie thinking ‘Wow, that was crazy. I’ll definitely have to see it again to find out what is real and what isn’t.’ I think this is the wrong way to watch the movie. Trying to nit pick which moments are real and which come from the projections of Nina’s mind would split the movie into two parts: Real and not. Rather, I would advise people to watch the entire movie as only one possibility: Everything is real. Yes, even the obvious hallucinations, are shown for a reason. This is what Nina is seeing so she can build up for the Greatest Performance of her life.

The use of mirrors and reflections plays a big part in this as well, as what we are seeing isn’t always necessarily ‘the real world’ as the events as they are unbiasedly happening, but rather the projections of Nina’s mind. There is hardly a set in this movie without a mirror, the most prominent one being The Stage that she finally performs on.

Mother/daughter relationship:

The relationship with the mother (Barbara Hershey) and daughter here is definitely a weird one. Hints of sexual abuse or molestation have been drawn from this, although others are quick to point out Aronofsky is anything but subtle, and such claims, although valid at certain points, ultimate do not aid the movie in Nina’s Q4P.

Instead, what we have here is the basic controlling parent but through the eyes of the child being controlled. At first she is just a slightly overbearing mother who wants her daughter to do well in the world of ballet. The mother tries to control Nina, helping her dress, keeping her room very childlike, and constantly keeping tabs on her (phonecalls). However, as Nina accepts the role of Black Swan into her life, she starts to push back, accept the darker half of herself. In doing this she sees her mother pushing back as well.

Having the mom be so in control and infantalizing her is just a way to get The White Swan out of the way. Instead of this being about a normal girl who has to become innocent and dark, which would be too much, she is already super innocent. Having her start out as super innocent also makes the climb to the darker self higher, by having her start lower.

One of the best moments from the movie and perfect example of how Nina views her mother is in the third act; after she comes home from visiting Beth’s hospital and washes her hands in the kitchen. There is an obvious ‘Horror Movie’ shot of the back part of the kitchen in blackness. Obviously someone is going to be there. After hearing a very quiet “Sweet Girl”, Nina turns on the light to see her mother. This isn’t scary because she suddenly appears or the slight music sting we get with it, but because we have everything the mother represents at this point coming into physical manifestation of Nina’s fears. The mother is jealous of Nina for what she could become and holds some resentment for Nina finding her own way. (Again, this may not be totally true of the mom, but through Nina’s eyes it is.)  That is what makes this moment truly frightening, not just the jump scare, but that Nina has someone physically trying to stop her from achieving The Perfect Show.

Thomas/Nina’s relationship:

Thomas ( Vincent Cassel) is touted as this sort of genius of directing ballets. And Nina buys into it. So what we get is what Nina pictures as true genius and can help her become perfect. Nina clings to every word he says. In one early dance scene after finishing a routine, she immediately walks over and stands right next to him, awaiting feedback. Later, in the “Again…” dance scene Nina gets slightly frustrated that he offers no feedback but keeps making her dance again.

The relationship they have is a sort of dominant/submissive one. Nina indeed clings to everything Thomas says and takes everything he says seriously as a performer. Likewise, Thomas gives instructions to Nina, sometimes they might be over her head but he knows that given the proper instruction she can become greater… perhaps the greatest?!

Some people may say he is a creep, and indeed he does kiss Nina, forcibly, at the beginning, but later he has several opportunities to take advantage of her and doesn’t. In his apartment he talks about sex with her but makes no move. Later when he seduces her he is merely making a point, that she is too weak.

The big turn in the movie comes when Nina starts seducing Thomas. When she pleads with him to not make Lily her alternate, that scene is really Nina seducing him (notice the way he gently touches her to try to console her). Later, during the second act, she leaves the stage to kiss him forcibly, the way he did earlier.

Beth/Nina’s relationship:

Beth (Winona Ryder) gets very little screen time, which perfectly mirrors of how little time she really got in the world of ballet. Beth is obviously not to happy about leaving and (purposefully?) gets into an accident.

Thomas while telling Nina of this describes her sometimes as perfect (Nina’s eyes raise to him when he mentions this). The next scene is her visiting Beth and seeing a very physically destroyed Beth. Her fears of becoming like this grow. She does not want to be the one the girls talk about while prepping.

As Nina returns Beth’s items in the third act, Nina sees herself in Beth, the gross physical representation of how she will one day be shoved to the side. Later when Nina rips down her mother’s paintings, she sees the Beth-Nina approach her. When she turns, it is really her mother, another example of how she will one day become ‘too old’ for her craft. This helps her understand what she must do later on in the movie, to give ‘The Perfect Performance’.

Lily/Nina’s relationship:

Lily (Mila Kunis) plays a pretty big part in this movie. Not specifically because her character makes a lot of big decisions to affect Nina, but because Nina projects herself onto Lily a lot.

Lily is ‘the new girl’ which makes it perfect for Nina to project herself onto, she is a blank slate. If it weren’t for Lily, we could imagine Nina projecting her Dark Nina self onto someone like Veronica, who clearly seems like more of a rival at the beginning of the movie. Lily also makes the perfect person to learn how to be The Black Swan from because of how Thomas describes her to him. She isn’t technically perfect but just effortlessly loses herself in the role. Later when it seems like Nina is out of control, she is really just learning how to lose herself…

The biggest thing here is the duality of the two and how they play each other to get what they want. A sort of cat and mouse game of seduction, but I’d argue Nina is the cat. Nina draws Lily in, shows her her innocence that Lily could mistakenly try to take advantage of to get her part (which every girl in the troupe wants). Nina instead allows Lily to get close to her so she can learn from her (or from herself as projected by the Dark Nina onto Lily), how to let go.

Both of these characters are after something from the other and ultimately it is Nina who wins out and Lily who apologizes to her.

Dark Nina:

Dark Nina is The Black Swan half of Nina.

At first, she projects herself onto strangers, as evidenced by the scene where she is walking outside and closers her phone, only to see a ‘double’ do the same. This could be interpreted as before this point, she had no outlet for her own projections. She saw herself as a nobody. A stranger. After winning the role of Swan Queen, Nina must project herself onto someone she thinks can help her understand the Black Swan better (Lily).

The Dark Nina starts to appear in the mirrors and in Lily. She appears in her mother and Beth. Finally Nina must confront Dark Nina in the dressing room before the second act. Dark Nina tells Nina that “its [her] turn” and Nina stabs her, shouting, “IT’S MY TURN!” and at this moment (combined with her regaining of composure) that kills the Dark Nina and allows Nina to use everything she projected onto others and physically become the role.

In a way this movie is a love letter to Method Acting. Everything Nina has done up to this point, whether it was real or she projected it, has come to full fruition. She uses every experience, every feeling, every moment to build up to this. That is why she doesn’t merely play the part of the Black Swan, but become it, literally growing wings (and also beautifully represented by the Normal Nina having the two silhouettes of the Swan Nina behind her).

Set Design:

The sets in this movie are all perfectly designed to focus around Nina’s Q4P. Nina, who has the lead in Swan Lake is also constantly surrounded by subtle imagery of Swan Lake.

Her apartment has natural wall paper (floral and butterfly designs) that reflects the first act of Swan Lake, which takes place in a forest. The club Nina and Lily go to has a fountain, representative of the Lake from Act 2. The Dance Studio is very concrete and the most important set, representing the castle from Swan Lake’s third act. In Swan Lake, this is where most of the seduction and competition comes out.

Thomas’ office and apartment are also divided into black and white, much like how Thomas is after two roles in the same person. The actual stage of Swan Lake has a lot of layers and moving parts, as well as having that modern, raw look Thomas talks about earlier.

Sounds and Music:

There are multiple not-so-subtle subtle sounds in this movie that come from Nina’s mind that she relates to certain items of feelings. Here are some of them:

First time she opens Beth’s lipstick – Soft, stuttering exhale

Represents her Q4P

Anytime she passes a group of girls – Quiet murmuring/giggling

Represents the competition of the other girls

Beth’s leg wound and Nina’s back scratches – Snake Rattle/Morraca type sound

Represents her fear of being replaced and the physical demand of the role

The Nina/Lily love scene has a bunch, one of which is a pig snorting? (which later comes back when she sees Thomas/The Evil Sorcerer and Lily/Dark Nina having sex after the lights go out when she is practicing alone). Also, those goosebumps and Lily’s flower tattoo turning into feathers are accompanied by a sort of feather rustling sound.

These sounds all have some sort of basis at the beginning to tie to, an image that directly goes with it. Later, in the third act, these sounds will come back even without those specific images, as now Nina is in full blown performance mode and those sounds are just in her mind helping her capture the feelings she experienced earlier.

Clint Mansell’s score is fantastic. It goes beyond the normal movie score of ‘this is what you should be feeling right now’ to actually inviting you into the mind of Nina. We hear the same sort of songs come back throughout the movie but as they come back they crescendo and become ‘bigger’.

As the stakes of the movie are raised so is the power behind the music.

Symmetry:

There is a lot of symmetry in this movie, from sets to props to makeup.

Something Symmetrical is usually defined as perfect. One side perfectly mirrors the other. As Nina tries desperately to get her Black Swan to the same perfection of her White Swan, she is constantly surround by such imagery.

The Dance Studio Set is very symmetrical (the mirrors equally divided and the silhouette paintings above them). Also the outdoor fountain location where Thomas talks to Nina about Beth’s accident. Thomas also has the Rorschach ink blot in his apartment.

The butterflies on Nina’s wallpaper are symmetrical, as well as the flowers on Beth’s lipstick and dressing room mirror, which is also symmetrical.

Nina’s face paint at the end during her performance is also the final usage of symmetry and a very physical representation of how Nina’s Q4P has come to full fruition.

The Camera:

The camera in this movie does a good job of keeping Nina the central focus. It is very intimate with her, while she walks, practices, or dances. She is what we are watching, investing our time in.

From the beginning the camera, all done on handheld, moves around and injects a very visceral feel into the movie. As Nina later learns to accepting “letting go” and feeling the moment,learning dancing isn’t just about control, she becomes more and more in synch with the camera.

The Opening Scene:

Beautifully demonstrates a very balletic version of how Nina is someone innocent and being seduced into darkness. As it fades to black it gives the impression that going into the darkness can be dangerous and sets the tone that as Nina becomes more and more like The Black Swan, it could be dangerous.

The Last Scene:

As Nina Jumps and falls into the mattress (and softly sinks into it, a feeling she definitely has earned at this point) she is praised by everyone around her. As they see her wound open up, they get worried and call for help. Nina however remains euphoric. “I felt it… perfect… it was perfect” she says. Instead of fading to black, confirming the dangers of the Black Swan and seduction to darkness, we instead get a beautiful fade to white. Nina has done it, she has achieved Perfection…

Suicide:

The decision to kill herself for the role comes pretty early I believe. Thomas plants the seed by choosing Swan Queen and stating in his summary of it she kills herself.  When talking about Swan Lake to Tom (or is it Jerry?) she pauses slightly and clears her throat before saying the character in Swan Lake kills herself (knowing that she will too). When Tom states that’s depressing, she comes back with “Its beautiful actually”.

Later, Thomas states that during practice that as she is going to jump that “[she is] not fearful but filled with acceptance”. When Nina stabs Lily/Dark Nina, she decides to project her stabbing someone else. Before the third act, she pulls the glass out of herself and realizes what she has done. She starts weeping, knowing what is ahead of her, but once again regains her composure. In a truly poetic moment, she wipes away the tears while simultaneously putting on her make up, for truly “[she is] not fearful but filled with acceptance”.

All of this comes to one thing. Everything in this movie is in some way related to Nina and her Quest for Perfection. What we get isn’t just a detailed look at the world of ballet but an intimate look at one ballerina’s desire to be the best. The fact that all aspects of this movie point to that makes it not just something to be felt viscerally but something to be studied and looked at under a microscope.

Some may say this movie bashes you over its head with its message and won’t like it for its not so subtle approach. You could argue that by then end, the bigger, grander, more theatrical it becomes its just trying to reflect the world of ballet. But I just like to think that as the camera constantly sticks with Nina, and the bigger the stakes around her get and the more involved in the role she becomes, we still get a very intimate look at one girl’s Quest for Perfection. This is not a movie you watch just to watch, but for a cinematic experience.

In lieu of giving this movie a Final Grade as I do all my other reviews, I will simply say this:

Black Swan was the best movie I saw in 2010.

3 responses to “(The Quest for Perfection in) Black Swan In Depth Review

  1. This review was almost as long as the Black Swan itself haha. Solid review. And I agree, it was the best film I saw in 2010.

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