Black Feathers [on Black Swan]

Black Swan (2010). Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Hello, there! And welcome.

This is my 1st post. I wanted to start the blog with something special, and I thought: why not Black Swan?

So… I realized I had to write something about Black Swan the minute I watched the film. I know: some people loved it, some people hated it. Just to make things clear: I do not intend to convince anyone that the film is good or that one has to watch it. Please, what I am writing here is my opinion, and maybe those who read it may find some points to relate to, maybe not.

Credits to my words may also be due to some discussions I had with some friends, mainly Kauan Negri who is my colleague in a research project at the university, and our Professor, Rita Schmidt.

Probably if you have already watched the film things will be clearer, but it does not mean that what I am going to say is not comprehensible if you have not. Of course, some spoilers may be found here and there; however, it is I do not aim to offer a movie review or to summarize its plot.

Black Swan + Gothic motifs

Black Swan is immersed in a Gothic aura which colors the film beautifully dark. Plot, setting, characters, and theme work together to take us into Nina’s peculiar world. I will point out, then, some aspects which got my attention, trying to relate them to the Gothic aesthetics. Here we go:

1.1 Narrator

In literature, the narrator is the one person (character) who tells the story. The narrator conducts the readers through the events, showing only what he/she considers worth showing. In cinema, the narrator is the camera, for it is only via what the camera shows us that we are able to follow the plot. What is not on focus, however, is not unimportant: just like in written texts, cinema also leaves some things implicit.

In the case of Black Swan, I find it interesting to note that Nina is present in all the scenes. If you pay attention, you can see that there are scenes in which the camera moves just like Nina (when she is walking or dancing, for instance, the movements up and down of the camera make us believe we are walking/dancing with her). It leads me to believe that the reality we see in the screen is Nina’s reality, not only because she is the main character, but because we are driven slowly into her persona, and thus we are able to participate in what is happening to her. The thin lines drawn between her reality and her delirium may also be considered a factor pointing to her influence on how the story is told, for we find out what was real or not just when she does so (or maybe, if you are an attentive watcher, you will see hints here and there pointing to an unreal happening). Usually, Gothic narrators cannot be trusted, and this is one of the reasons I have to be suspicious of the reality we are presented by Nina’s delusions.

1.2 Settings

It is not difficult to realize that the settings of Black Swan play with black and white. Not only the setting, but also costume design is very representative of the primary opposition the movie brings up: white versus black. I do not refer to the reductionist perspective of ‘good versus evil’, for that would lead us to the problematic of defining ‘good’ and ‘evil’; besides, it would also leave us with a ‘simpler’ and ‘plain’ perception. The colors here are deeply symbolic to the construction of the meaning; they add to the film a visual feature worth noting. Nina always wears light colors while the other characters wear mostly black. As the film evolves and Nina starts to connect with her other (darker) side, her outfits show grey scales. Her full surrender to the black color happens on stage, when the Black Swan has already conquered Nina’s white surface, so to speak. The usage of lights and shadows are also a good resource to add a deeper meaning to the scenes.

Nina’s dream of Swan Lake

1.3 Heroine

The typical Gothic heroine is the one who finds herself in distress. She lives a rather isolated and enclosed life and has to struggle to prevail over ‘evil forces’ which are willing to overcome her. Most of the times, this struggle leads to a self-discovery of some level.

According to Hoeveler and Heller in Approaches to Teaching Gothic Fiction – the British and American Tradition*, Gothic themes include

[…] women’s claustrophobic experience in the bourgeois family: father-daughter relations; the mother-daughter bond; and women’s often ambivalent attitudes toward sexuality, the body and artistic creativity. […] (Hoeveler and Heller, XII)

Nina is an imprisoned woman, captive of her own discipline and moral: she tries so hard to be perfect that she pulls away anything which might take her from the path she pursues. Her body is the tool via which her work gains life – a tool that cannot be impure or maculated – and thus her most profound feelings are kept buried deep. Even sexual instincts are repressed, and all of her attempts to pleasure herself fail, expect when she experiences her delusional intercourse with Lily – when she is actually having sex with her (other) self.

We cannot say Nina actually ‘wins the battle’ against the obscure forces that surround her, though. And they are plenty: we are lead to believe Nina was bulimic and that she provokes self-injuries (unconsciously?); she tries, in vain, to repress her sexual fantasies and desires; she grows neurotic as the opening night approaches; her mood and disposition change drastically under pressure. Even though there is no victory for Nina (not in the traditional way, at least) she does find what she looks for: perfection. Surely, that comes with a price she is willing to pay, turning herself into the fallen heroine of the plot.

If the Gothic raises questions of identity and sexuality, we can question who Nina really is under all the discipline and rules she lives; and how does her relation to her mother affect her – and how much of this relation is not distorted by Nina’s view and problems.

Nina performing as the White Swan

1.4 Reality/delusion

The Gothic challenges the boundaries of ‘inside/outside, mind/body, and imagination/reality’ (Witt, 42)**. And off we go with Nina through dreams, delirium and reality (sometimes undistinguishable) to investigate and to push limits. How far does Nina have to go to achieve what she works for and desire? What are the transgressions she will have to commit? With what will she get in touch, and how is it going to influence her?

After watching the film, some of the answers may be visible. Nina’s pursuit led her to meet (release?) that side of her she was keeping quiet and shut; and it was powerful and yearning to be outside, unleashed and seductive. Her body prevailed over her mind – but what she meets is not madness, it is her other, her double (announced already in the scene in which Nina passes by she herself in her way to the train; this other Nina is dressed in black, and has a somewhat mocking expression; also, the insistent presence of mirrors reflecting Nina). This other Nina also shows up in specific moments, such as during Nina’s sex experience with Lily/other Nina, and during the fight between Nina and Lily/other Nina in the dressing room at the opening night. At some point, there is a fusion between Nina and her other which leads us to the dramatic final of the film. This fusion is symbolic, for all along Nina and her other were the same.

1.5 The Uncanny

This other Nina, brought to the surface by Nina’s surrender to her (dark) instincts may assume, in my point of view, the role of the uncanny. According to Freud in his essay Das Unheimliche (1919), the uncanny is ‘everything that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light’. However, the uncanny ‘is the strangeness inside the familiar’***. Thus, the other Nina is not an external, unknown element, but a rather close, internal one – the terror comes from inside the self.

The mirror delirium

2. Imprisoned artist

One of the aspects of Black Swan which more caught my attention was the metaphor about art that the film brings. I explain: the way I see it, the white and the black swans represent the dilemma of the artist in his/her creative work. The white and pure Nina/swan (which is merely on the surface) is not able to be the perfect artist – it is strictly about discipline and self-control. The black and seductive Nina/swan (which surrenders to the lust of the flesh and senses) embodies the essence of art, of surrender, of the body. In order to be a perfect artist, Nina has to embrace her dark side, her dark self; and so every artist must touch his/her deepest feelings and allow his/her emotions to flow.

The Black Swan

Final words

Black Swan is a film which happens in the details, in the subtlety of the art of telling a story. I found it very pleasing and catching, and its dark and wicked mood really got me. The Gothic motifs make the film much more than just a story about a girl who has problems. Of course, I did not mention all the motifs or all the aspects I intended at first – one, because my point was not to extinguish the discussion about the movie; and two, because I believe the film deserves someone with more background than me to go really deep into it, and maybe write a serious paper on it. However, I do hope I did not say a lot of nonsense here.

Black Swan involves you and slides with the delicacy of a feather in front of our eyes to approach psychological, moral and social issues. A black feather, I’d say.

*****

References

*Hoeveler, Diane Long and Heller, Tama, eds Approaches to Teaching Gothic Fiction – the British and American Tradition. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2003.

**WITT, Judith. ‘And still insists he sees the ghosts’: defining the Gothic. In Hoeveler, Diane Long and Heller, Tama, eds Approaches to Teaching Gothic Fiction – the British and American Tradition. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2003. p.39-45

***FREUD, Sigmund. Das Unheimliche. Quoted in LLOYD-SMITH,  Alan. American Gothic Fiction – an introduction. New York: Continuum, 2004. p.74-75

5 thoughts on “Black Feathers [on Black Swan]

  1. Wonderful analysis r.,

    I began reading it yesterday, but stopped deciding to watch the movie first before advancing. It was the right choice.

    Indeed the movie is wonderful and dark, a fight between the Ego and the Me, 2 sides of the same coin where the beautiful, frail, disciplined girl slowly falls for the darker and seductive impulses that her mind had been keeping at bay for years. And its very well realized, as you mention, they give you tips in a lot of scenes of what is going on. There are few more frightening things than our mind playing games on us.

    It’s a movie of the darker self, yes, but it shows all the sacrifices some people do for the beauty and perfection of the dance, the struggles, the pain, the envies, but also of how to push yourself over your limits, to grow and become better… but how some simply lose the struggle. Nina needed to be more, there was only one aspect of her personality, everything else was repressed, and you could see it on her voice, she needed to let herself go and enjoy what she was doing, but she lost herself in that trip, and at the same time encountered with herself in a very unexpected way. She wanted ultimate perfection and she achieved it through the ultimate sacrifice. She couldn’t be happier with anything less.

    But ultimately these all is her mother’s fault. Nina look toward perfection yes, but because her mother had pushed her toward that while overprotecting her. Nina’s mother is living her dreams through her daughter, she has become a symbol of the moral and what is right, she is the law and the wall against which Nina needs to push or be suffocated, or at least that is how Nina sees it. There are also parts where I believe there is some kind of incestuous relationship among them, but it might only be a misplaced Electra Complex (it usually falls to the father, but that figure is Thomas, and yes she likes him, but he is more a mentor and father than a lover).

    Nina’s mother had sheltered her from the world and herself, to the point of becoming a wall even for her sexual desires, treating her like a child when she is a grown woman, her medium is a pink bubble with a need of a hard reset… and in this case will be very hard.

    Also while Nina shows desires for other women she keeps them down, I do believe for moral issues more than anything else. (She keeps running away from Lily, while seeing herself on the girl, especially in what she lacks, her other self taking Lily’s form to take on her twice)

    So after stumbling between work and answering I hope this answer is readable. The last point is to mention that yes it was a very enjoyable movie, and that I was quite surprised to see Wynona Rider again after years of having her lost from the map. (Yes I know she keeps acting, just no important protagonics and the others are very out of the way movies for me).

    • I am so glad you enjoyed the film!
      and thanks for reading this post (;

      and yes, i do beleive you raise some very important points in your comment:
      – i agree the movie talks about sacrife and the demands of the self for happiness and perfection. Nina tries so hard to BE perfection that she forgets about the feelings she’s suppose to enjoy while dancing.
      – i believe your view of a suffocating mother (with even some incentuous aspects) is completely likely. but i would reinforce that most of the times (if not always) we see things as Nina sees it, so maybe things are not really the way we are presented to.
      – and yes, Lily is the projection of eveything Nina ever wanted to be (to have?), and i do like how the two of them mix to confuse us, but also to explain things.

      thank you for your time, dear Ernesto!

      • je indeed her true mother only appears sometimes, but there is a saying in Mexico “Haz fama y hechate a dormir/make a name for yourself and sleep over it”. Maybe her mother is not so overbearing, but she has always lived in an overbearing environment, with time our minds exagerate tini details into some very big issues, but that is how thing piles themselves.

        And yes, I really liked the work between Natalie and Milla, they made some very good work, and some very very good scenes😛

        and dear, it was my pleasure🙂

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