The Art is the Artist: a Consideration of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (contains spoilers!)

I just said it, but it bears repeating: this post contains spoilers, so please do not read ahead if you are sensitive to things like that.


What is the relationship between the art and the artist? That is the central question of Black Swan, a trippy psychological thriller that pits Nina (Natalie Portman) against the role of her career: Swan Lake’s Swan Queen, split into two shades: the White Swan, the cursed princess who needs love to change her back into a young girl, and the Black Swan, her cruel twin sister and seductress of the White Swan’s only hope for release.

The film pits the two swans against each other effectively. We come to understand, through the mentorship of the company’s director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), that the White Swan is naive, idealistic. In terms of the dance, she is flawless, technically perfect, trained. The Black Swan is her doppelganger, representing both dark desire and dark methods. The Black Swan must be visceral, is absorbed by the feeling of the moment rather than the requirements of the dance. She is unpredictable.

In a move reminiscent of Almodóvar, Aronofsky lifts the archetypes from Swan Lake and places them inside his narrative, adding an additional layer of tension and metaphor. Nina’s (Mila Kunis) technically flawless but spiritless dancing is contrasted with that of Lily, the company’s newcomer, whose impassioned but “incorrect” dancing seduces Thomas before Nina’s eyes. But Nina, we come to learn, has a Black Swan within, a schism shaken loose more and more desperately by her own insecurity, by her paranoia’s of Lily’s friendship (or sabotage?), by her mother’s suffocating control over her daily life off stage. Ultimately, Nina gives in and becomes both swans, flawlessly—she commits, in her mind, the act that finally releases the swan (murdering Lily during intermission) and then, just as quickly, discovers it was a fantasy and returns to the White Swan, now realizing she has lost everything she dreamed possible about herself.

That all of this occurs during the opening performance of the ballet is both tense and somewhat humorous, and the film plays with this tension, allowing us brief moments of nervous laughing even as we both fear and root for Nina. In that way, Aronofsky releases the Black Swan within each audience member and, by extension, forces us to empathize with Nina’s destructive schism.

What’s truly remarkable about this film is that every decision that went into its production was so carefully chosen so as to contribute to the thematic arc of the film. The costumes help define the light and the dark. The beginning of the film, Nina wears light pinks and whites for every scene, from her warm ups at home to her practice runs at Lincoln Center to a night out with Lily. But as the film progresses, we see her incorporate swatches of black, more and more fully, until her Black Swan fully takes her over. She takes, at Lily’s insistence, a black camisole and wears it beneath her own shirt during their Ecstasy-fueled dance night, which finally and fully releases the potential of the black swan’s power to Nina herself. Lily, on the other hand, is almost always dark–dark practice suits, dark hair, even somewhat ruddy skin, dark eyes. The contrast–and yet the resemblance–between Portman and Kunis is occasionally jarring, and purposefully so as Aronofsky sometimes shows Nina misrecognizing Lily’s face as her own, especially in the scene where she stabs Lily (wearing her face) with a shard of broken mirror. Are you getting the symbols yet?

The sets are also doing a lot of work. Nina’s apartment is small and claustrophobic, her bedroom decorated in whites and pinks with the accoutrements of childhood like stuffed animals, ceramic animals, and a ballerina music box. But right through the center of her white pillow is a curling stripe of black ink, swirling around her head. Thomas’s apartment is a mid-century modern shrine that balances striking white elements with heavy black elements, signifying that he is the balance between the light and dark–and perhaps the route back and forth. In the nightclub where Nina gives in to Lily’s visceral pleasures, the entire screen is black, lit with a pulsing red strobe light.

The camerawork is also brilliant. The film relies heavily on hand held camerawork, giving the film both a sense of cinema verité and also of the psychotic shifting happening within Nina. The filming of the dancing creates dizziness and instability in the viewer to match our heroine’s descent and vertigo–we experience the whirl/stop balance of a pirouette that spins out of control as well as the imbalance inspired by being carried atop a dancer’s shoulders and turned, turned, turned beneath the lights.

The sound effects are also amazing. Throughout the film, Aronofsky peppers the soundtrack with the sound of rustling feathers, evidence of Nina’s growing transition and schism. The tapping of her toe shoes en pointe as she dances echo this sound, make her sound wholly avian. And the burly, sexual tones of the Tchaikovsky ballet are constantly contrasted with the light, delicate tones.

If Nina represents the dichotomy of the swans and Lily the threat of losing the part of her career to a more natural Black Swan, then Thomas is the prince of the ballet, there to save Nina from both the obscurity of the chorus and the ruin of her own meek identity. That Nina sees (or imagines) Thomas seduced by Lily only completes the enlivening of the ballet in her life. Nina’s mother, on the other hand, seems to be the presence who curses her. A failed ballerina herself, she lives through Nina’s career by extension, manipulating her daughter’s emotions to retain control over her choices, behavior, and ultimately her career (she even wears all and only black!). In order to fully become the Black Swan, Nina must reject her and her control.

In the final performance, with Nina seemingly divided into the two aspects of her role, the light and the dark, traveling back and forth between the personae, she represents the artist’s full integration into the art. She is no longer dancing the swans. She is the swans. Trapped in the circumstances of her own fear and insecurity, she dances the first act as the White Swan, full of self-pity and desire to be saved. In the dressing room, after she kills Lily/Nina and hides her body, she takes on the Black Swan, invites the darkness into her, and flawlessly dances the part to enormous audience acclaim. She kisses Thomas full on the mouth in front of her dancing colleagues and, just as quickly, tosses him away. Back in the dressing room to prepare for her final act, she discovers, when Lily knocks on her door, that the murder was a fantasy, and she realizes, too, that she is no longer capable of separating reality from her own perception of it. She has become a victim of the Black Swan herself–a victim of her ambition, her ego, her desire to conquer. Emotional, now, and slightly broken, resigned to her fate, she dances the White Swan’s final scenes with no division between self and role. Nina knows what she must do in order to be released from her curse–just like the White Swan. When she dives from the cliff, the audience roars–and we discover she is bleeding from a wound in her abdomen. In order to succeed in the part, she had to become the part; she had to burn out in order to burn brightly. The White Swan and Black Swan cannot coexist.

If Inception was this year’s exploration of the filmmaker’s process to create his artistic vision, then Black Swan is the parable of the artist, the performer, the maker. This is not about process, but identity. The art is the artist–when completely integrated, the art/ist is transcendent, ecstatic. The integrated art/ist is both a symbol of herself and herself; she is human and heavenly. It is a strong and powerful message here.

Aside from all of this, the movie is buoyed by the beautiful dancing sequences executed by Portman and Kunis, who both received extensive training for the role.

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