Thursday, 22 December 2011

Reflections and Duality in Black Swan

(Warning: Spoiler Alert! You should probably watch the film first before reading this article as it contains some plot points and the discussion of certain themes. Plus you should watch the film anyway as its really good!)

I actually first watched Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan a few months ago but didn't get around to writing a piece about it at the time (as you could literally talk about this film for days) but felt I should discuss some of its many themes a little as it will no doubt feature in my upcoming ‘favourite movies of 2011’ article.

So, what to discuss? With a film this layered and rich thematically there is so much to choose from: a commentary on artistry and performance, being consumed by a desire for perfection to the point of madness, the overbearing mother and the loss of innocence, the figurative as well as literal metamorphosis into the Black Swan… the list goes on.

Perhaps the most obvious theme presented in the film is that of reflections and duality. Firstly, presented at face value: the ballerina Nina (played by Natalie Portman) is asked to play the dual role of the White and Black Swans in an upcoming production of Swan Lake. She is constantly told by the show’s director that she easily embodies the grace, poise and innocence of the White Swan but not the darker, more free and full of lustful desire character attributes of the Black Swan, thus setting up (in her mind and the viewer’s) a constant self examination of her character and comparison to those around her – after all, one’s identity is often realised and/or put into perspective through comparison to others, whether for good or bad.

It’s no surprise then that mirrors feature heavily in the film. Either directly: in the backstage area, the dance studio, the bathroom or the bedroom – all locations that Nina spends a lot of her time in; or indirectly: reflections in the subway car window, in water, multiple drawings and paintings of her, and the eventual use of a mirror as a weapon.

She is always comparing herself and being compared whether consciously or not and almost every other female role acts as a direct comparison or reflection to her. First and foremost her ‘rival’ and friend Lily played by Mila Kunis. Portraying a carefree, open, confident, tattooed, fast food eating, clubber with an olive complexion, she is a the direct opposite to Nina’s pale, uptight, sheltered and more traditional ballerina. The lines between these two characters are increasingly blurred as the movie goes on and Nina sinks further into madness and into the role of the Black Swan. It is obvious that this character of Lily exists in reality to some degree but to what extent? At times Nina thinks they have spent time together when they haven’t, she thinks she has killed her but she hasn't – her character is as much a reflection of what she wants to be or needs to be herself at the time in order to fully assume the characteristics needed for the role of the Black Swan.

Again, this is a direct comparison to the other dynamic at play in the film in which Nina becomes paranoid that Lily is going to steal her role in the show – just as the White Swan has her love stolen by the Black Swan in the story of Swan Lake. So all at once Lily acts as Nina’s friend, enemy, counterpart, lover, reflection and sometimes even becomes her – in several scenes she even mistakenly sees Lily as herself or even a ‘dark’ version of herself.

To further add to the mindfuck, rumour has it that in certain scenes the actresses briefly played each other’s roles – you will have to watch the film again carefully to catch these bits. Although worlds apart in character, the two actresses purposely share a similar height, build and hair colour which makes this trick very feasible practically but also helps bolster the themes of reflection and duality the film.

As mentioned earlier, other female roles in the film act as comparisons to Nina, whether it’s the old and maligned ballerina Beth whom Nina has previously idolised and now replaced, or her overbearing and protective mother trying to relive her failed youth as a dancer vicariously through her daughter’s successes; both cracked and distorted reflections in the mirror of what Nina sees in herself.

Finally, the theme of duality manifests itself in Nina’s figurative and literal transformation into the Black Swan. Running in parallel to her acquisition of the Black Swan character traits are the Cronenberg inspired body horror scenes of Nina’s rashes turning into gooseflesh, the sprouting of black feathers and bent swan legs. So consumed is she in her quest to become the Black Swan that her mind loses control over the separation of the real and the metaphorical. Following on from this line of thought, the ending makes sense – she feel she needs to die in order to create the perfect Swan Lake performance.

Stepping out of the film, we also see a duality with the Black Swan’s companion piece The Wrestler (2008), also directed by Aronofsky. Although poles apart in their physicality (one is young, petite and lithe, the other old and hulking) the films' protagonists share similar traits of dedication, obsession, physical and mental wounding and ultimately, sacrifice.

One could even (rather cheekily) say that Black Swan is a ‘reflection’ of Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue (1997) that eerily shares many similar ideas and plot points about duality, confusion of identity and yes, mirrors! Whilst Aronofsky admitted he was influenced a lot by the story of Perfect Blue, we could just argue Black Swan is simply a warped reflection in a western mirror.

Now that’s meta!

(For an idea of some similarities these films share, watch this comparison video HERE)

22 Dec 2011

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