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The Psychological Masterpiece That Is Black Swan

Updated on May 4, 2012

The Psychological Masterpiece That Is Black Swan

One reason for the popularity of Darren Aronofsky’s psychosexual masterpiece, “Black Swan,” was that it fell into numerous movie genres. Not only is it a dance movie, but is also considered to be an indie film and a thriller. This phenomenal piece of cinematic gold was nominated for and won countless awards in many film festivals and award ceremonies, but what seemingly every critic views as the uttermost prestigious of these ceremonies is the Academy Awards. In this particular award ceremony, “Black Swan” was nominated for five Academy Awards including best picture. Due to brilliant acting and casting of characters, ingenious cinematography, creative directing, and the instilled theme of a constant strive for perfection, “Black Swan” undoubtedly deserving its nomination for Academy Award for best picture.

“Black Swan” tells the fictional story of a ballerina named Nina Sayers, who is magnificently portrayed by none other than Natalie Portman. Nina is beyond devoted to a life of dance as she strives to be the absolute pristine ballerina, particularly for the production of “Swan Lake.” After the mysterious and effortlessly talented dancer named Lily, played by Mila Kunis, steps into the picture Nina feels extremely threatened by her, because she fears that Lily will replace her for leading role in the ballet production. After this realization, Nina elevates her obsession to a whole new level that can only be comprehended by the audience thanks to the ingenious methods the director uses to reveal Nina’s gradual slide into insanity. Typically in “Swan Lake” the white swan and black swan are performed by two separate dancers since they require different styles of ballet; however, in this particular production of “Swan Lake” the choreographer, Thomas Leroy, wants the part of both the black and white swan to be performed by the same dancer. Nina is nearly flawless when practicing the white swan, but Thomas says to her, “If I were only casting the white swan she [the leading role] would be yours. But I’m not.” Nina’s priority then becomes clear: She must become the black swan. Throughout the movie Nina slowly becomes more and more like the black swan, and slips closer and closer into the transformation of the mentally unstable person she unwillingly creates. Aronofsky employs unbelievable directing tactics to convey this metamorphosis to the audience. For example, Nina discovers unexplained scratches mysteriously placed body that can only be explained as her clawing herself while sleeping. Eventually she graphically rips feathers from her body, as her arms take the shape of colossal wings and Natalie Portman is literally depicted as a black swan. This is; however, only in Nina’s mind, and is a metaphor that is magnificently displayed visually to the audience that Nina has finally become what she has longed to be: The Black Swan.

Further enhancing the film, the casting in “Black Swan” is ideal, and the actors mesh perfectly to help the film reach its full potential, along with unbelievable acting performances. What makes the characters perfect is that certain characters with similarities in the movie are tremendously contrasted. Nina and Lily, for example, both have a common goal of being the lead role in “Swan Lake,” but are tremendously different. Natalie Portman brilliantly creates a persona that conveys a lack of confidence, unstable emotions, timidity, and a desire to be perfect. Nina is a beautiful but extremely soft-spoken and delicate girl which made Portman ideal in the casting for the part. Portman’s performance phenomenally conveyed Nina’s dark road that began with the innocent and delicate white swan, progressed to dark and seductive black swan, and tragically ended with the inevitable insanity that brought about her demise. This flawless portrayal of Nina won Portman the Academy Award for Best Actress in 2010. Along with the unblemished acting performance, the most outstanding instances of cinematography were utilized through Natalie Portman’s character. As she transformed into the black swan, the director used camera angles and shots to place Nina on a pedestal while performing in “Swan Lake” at the end of the film; however, what was truly magnificent was the fact that while the majority of the scene showed her as a terrifying black swan creature, the camera periodically cut to another angle and visually portray her as what the audience of the ballet actually sees. While Nina looked as if she had completed metamorphosis into the swan creature, the audience saw her simply as a brilliant, but human, ballerina giving the performance of a lifetime. The cinematography used here allowed the audience of the movie to understand that Natalie Portman was not actually becoming a monster, but in had become the perfect black swan.

Natalie Portman’s role as Nina could not have been better complimented with the opposing role of Lily by anyone other than Mila Kunis. Kunis’s dark features and large alluring eyes give her a sense of mystery and confidence which made her perfect for the role of Lily. In a sense, Nina is jealous of Lily. Lily possesses much of what Nina is trying to achieve. Nina’s dancing at the beginning of the film, although very impressive, is forced and unnatural. Lily, on the other hand, is effortlessly talented, and very natural in her abilities. Lily simply symbolizes the black swan, and Nina symbolizes the white swan. While the director is asking for a single dancer to be both the black and white swan, Nina must become more like Lily, which will be difficult since they are nearly polar opposites. Not only is Lily’s sex appeal, mystery, and threat to Nina superbly exemplified through the performance by Kunis, but also by the directing. For example, there is a scene where Lily’s tattoos on her back are clearly seen and have a very important purpose that is conveyed. Lily has a very visible tattoo stretched across her back of flowers. In this particular scene, Nina and Lily are very intimately involved, when Nina sees Lily’s tattoos transform before her eyes from the flowers to black wings. This further emphasizes that Lily symbolizes the black Swan. Moments later in the scene, Lily turns her face to Nina, and Nina is terrified to see none other than her own face. The face quickly becomes the face of Mila Kunis again, but this glimpse of Natalie Portman helps further make the point clear that Nina is slowly becoming more like Lily; therefore, Nina is slowly becoming more like the black swan.

The second comparison of characters that is crucial to the film is the comparison of the choreographer, Thomas Leroy, and Nina’s mother, Erica Sayers. Although both characters play roles of authority in the life of Nina Sayers, they are tremendously contradictory to each other. Thomas Leroy, portrayed by French actor Vincent Cassel, spends the entire movie trying to help Nina complete the transformation into becoming both the white and black swan. Leroy desperately wants Nina to break out of her shell. “You could be brilliant, but you’re a coward,” Leroy tells Nina. Cassel employs an enormous amount of passion into the role of Thomas Leroy, which is evident throughout the film as it seems the only thing he cares about is Nina “letting go” and “losing herself.” Erica Sayers, on the other hand, holds Nina back the entire film. Played by Barbara Hershey, Erica encourages Nina to not spend as much time on dance, because it consumes her. Constantly throughout the film Erica communicates to Nina that she “is working too hard!” Although her radical and sometimes frightening actions seem to be based on good intentions for Nina, she is holding her back from being perfect, which is the most important goal in Nina’s so-called life, that is falling apart before the audiences’ eyes.

In addition to the cinematography, casting, acting, and directing, the prevalent theme of striving for perfection played a vital role in achieving the nomination of best picture. Nina’s level of obsession with dancing and with perfection is at such an extreme level that it is all she cares about. Throughout “Black Swan” Nina experiences what the audience can only assume are hallucinations and visions of vivid, graphic, and utterly disturbing images that are evidence of Nina’s loss of sanity. Leroy told Nina that “perfection isn’t just about control. It’s also about letting go … the only person standing in your way is you. It’s time to let her go. Lose yourself.” Nina spends the entire movie trying to let go and loose herself, trying to be like Lily, trying to become the black swan. Eventually Nina loses herself and achieves this perfection, giving a dazzling performance that enchants the entire audience of “Swan Lake,” but pays the ultimate price. In the end of the film, at the very end of “Swan Lake” Nina jumps from a stage prop to a mattress off stage to conclude her indescribable performance. When she lands on the mattress, the viewers of the film are shocked to see blood seeping through the delicate fabric of Nina’s costume. The audience can only gather that Nina had killed herself, whether she realized it or not. The journey to perfection is an impossible one, and Nina died during this journey. As she lay there on the mattress, Thomas Leroy’s face is struck with horror as he gasps, “Nina, what did you do?!” And Nina utters her last line of the movie that echoed and lingered in the thoughts of viewers everywhere, “I felt it. Perfect. I was perfect.”

Although “Black Swan” is an amazing film that certainly deserved its nomination for Best Picture, it is extremely confusing, hard to follow, and disturbing. This may very well be the reason “Black Swan” did not win the Academy Award. But one thing is for certain: that “Black Swan” was beautifully and creatively crafted through the magnificent use of cinematography and directing, and shaped by the ideal casting and phenomenal performances of the entire cast. Although perfection is unattainable, who is to say someone or something cannot be recognized as one of the greatest.


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