Body Versus Mind in Aronofsky’s Black Swan
Peter Sciretta was at the 37th Telluride Film Festival premiere of Black Swan. He writes that “before Darren Aronofsky left the introduction of his new film, Black Swan, he apologized to the crowd: ‘I’m really sorry. I want to apologize for what’s about to happen…I didn’t know what I was doing…’ With that he walked off stage and the lights went down.” Five Oscar nominations later, we ask ourselves whether we should join in lauding the director’s apparent confusion. What we find in our investigation of the film is an interesting conflict between the ballerina body and mind. In a disorienting and rhythmically astonishing dream sequence, we meet Nina, a lithely fragile anti-heroine, played in an impossibly pristine yet reckless manner by Natalie Portman.
Dreaming of dancing the part of the White Swan Queen in her Broadway ballet company’s newest rendition of Swan Lake, Nina begins the film ebullient and hopeful. She shares a womblike apartment with her mother (Barbara Hershey), who is optimistic and encouraging, and there is no sign of strife or discontent in their staid New York flat. Nina’s dancing abilities are technically masterful, but when she is cast by the company artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) to play both the virginal white swan and the seductive black swan in a stripped-down, “visceral and real” rendition of the traditional performance, she immediately begins to crescendo down the rabbit hole. In the end, neither she nor the audience can distinguish the real from the surreal.
What we’re witnessing here is a pop re-telling of a traditional Jungian struggle for individuation in the style of Young Goodman Brown. Nina fearfully fights to reconcile her innocent striving for actualization with the inherent darkness of an id she must identify and ultimately harness. The film’s postmodern interpretation of this classic tale sees this metamorphosis as being concurrently metaphorical and literal.
As Nina’s trust in herself devolves, so does her trust in those closest to her. Indeed, the calls into question the very framework in which she was brought up—accusing her mother (an ex-ballerina who never achieved Nina’s success) of ipso facto defeat. Worse, Nina suspects that her mother is using her as an instrument for her own vicarious atonement. In response, Nina commences what appears to have been a latent teenage rebellion. Her sexual misadventures, always impeded by her mother, exacerbate the conflict. The mother/daughter relationship becomes a rather powerful demonstration of simultaneous evolution and degeneration for Nina as she succumbs to the weight of her delusion. At the root of her psychosis lies a destructive pursuit of perfection. In order to be the Black Swan figure, she must get herself out of the way—must destroy herself—sacrifice herself to the role.
Thomas knows this, and he is unnervingly hard on Nina from the start, demanding an unimaginably raw and “felt” performance from her in the role of the black swan. However, his excessive pressure only adds to her paranoia — making Nina more frail and frightened. The parallels between this story and that of the original Swan Lake abound.
The beauty of Black Swan is that it plays out as a melodramatic, allegorical ballet in its own right. Clint Mansell‘s score reprises haunting tactics used in both Moon and The Wrestler. Every element makes it difficult to distinguish between the film, the ballet, and the underlying and ongoing dance within the story. Aronofsky also has a penchant for demonstrating obsession manifest as self-mutilation and the self-destructive nature of people in pursuit of fleeting fulfillment. However, as Portman’s frame degenerates and withers before our eyes, we see not only what lengths unhealthy and brutal self-sacrifice can drive us to, but also are made to understand that transformation is a painful process, and often is simultaneously literal and figurative. In juxtaposition to the lofty aspirations of the mind, the body is a cumbersome outlet for expression. Ballerinas are limited in the things their bodies allow them to achieve, but they also have the capacity to transcend those barriers, if only briefly. While Nina may be losing herself in the obsession of the process, she is bent on sacrificing for the ultimate achievement of her art. She struggles not only with the sacrifice it takes to master the written role, but the moral purity she must give up in order to do so. Flailing, she fights to determine her own character, which is lodged somewhere between the psychedelic world of drug-use and graphic sexual encounters and the propriety and ethical purity of a prima ballerina.
It is possible that as he claimed, Aronofsky may not have known what he was doing.
Black Swan has been criticized for its almost cheeky overuse of the devices of duality, individuation, and transfiguration, leading to a heavy allegorical hand. It could also be that the understatement of his own metacognition was a tongue-in-cheek dismissal of the idea that he might have actually achieved exactly that for which he was going. Ultimately, each of these devices find their place in the story’s evolution, and the resulting mishmash of the painfully allegorical and absurd has the paradoxical effect of bringing the story closer to life because of its indication of how truly difficult a virtuous existence of the mind is to reconcile with the reality of the body.
A.E. Rogers is a writer/actor and teaches Digital Media and Literary Criticism in Austin, TX.