January 20, 2011
Binary opposites are often used both visually and thematically in mainstream cinema to provide simple and stark contrast with disappointingly little examination of the grey area in between. Taking into account Jacques Derrida’s theorising that there are inherent hierarchies within these dichotomous pairings, there exists a more compelling standpoint from which to consider, not only the way in which the two might interact, but also how it is that they might then begin to break down. A dynamics of power, the interplay between the two is necessarily relational. As such, in even considering the hierarchical structure there exists the possibility that the relationship is organic and that the two might then traverse, confront and collide with one another in their struggle to appropriate the higher ground. This rather striking contemplation of binary opposites is what Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller Black Swan (2010) exemplarily explicates.
Natalie Portman gives her finest onscreen performance as Nina Sayers, a young ballerina who has, until now, always been a great technical dancer with incredible dedication and discipline. Straight-laced, and having lived a sheltered life at the hands of her controlling mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), Nina is also ambitious. Like any performer, she is driven by the desire to not only achieve but also to embody perfection. When long-standing prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) is to be replaced – an inevitable fate for an aging ballerina – the company’s artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell) casts Nina in the leading role, but, not without hesitation. Although he believes she absolutely embodies the White Swan; elegant, innocent, graceful; he labels her “too frigid” to play the darker side of the Swan Queen, the Black Swan. As such, Nina is, from the outset, anxious about the role and determined to achieve something in self-discovery that will prove her skeptics wrong. When the equally beautiful and certainly as talented Lily (Mila Kunis) joins the ballet Nina becomes irrationally scared of being replaced (a symptom of her guilt felt in replacing Beth) and begins to project the manifestation of all her anxieties onto Lily; slowly, and then psychotically. Whilst in reality Lily poses little threat to Nina and if anything, offers only friendship and support, this is the first of many in Nina’s erratic and delusional interpretations of events.
Though it is certainly true that Aronofsky paints with broad strokes in terms of the motifs to indicate light and dark, rigid and free, it is a very detailed and accomplished contrast that is drawn. From the pastel pinks and delicate jewellery Nina wears, right down to how tightly she secures her bun, she is always shown as a picture of aspiring perfection. Conversely, Lily wears black, adorns herself with chunky bangles, bags and an iPod, and lets her hair down even in rehearsal. But it is not so simple as Nina being “good” and Lily being “bad”. Far from it, Lily is actually a beacon for what Nina must aspire to: a freer, more natural self. In fact, even with Nina’s sexual awakening and her performative journey blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, her taking on the role of the Black Swan is a positive, emancipatory experience. Finally freeing herself from the little girl who turns to mummy for every little thing and finally engaging in something of a life outside of her own discipline and rigidity, Nina’s partial submission to her binary opposite, though difficult and even traumatic, is both healthier and liberating.
For the viewer, as it is for Nina onscreen, the certainty of what is real and what is imaginary becomes increasingly indistinct. This lack of clarity is Aronofsky’s presentation of the grey area. As Nina allows chaos into her life the previous order begins to break down. However, it is not the case that she ever truly gives in to it and ultimately the rigid version of herself, driven to perfection, still reigns. She says early on in the film, before her encounter with the opposite, “I just wanna be perfect”. Dancing the White Swan she stumbles; dancing the Black Swan she flourishes. Returning to both her real self and the White Swan, reality is restored. Nina realises that the freedom she experienced from herself existed for only a moment onstage and that she is now, as she ever was, incarcerated in a prison she built for herself. Achieving, however fleeting, the culmination of two binary opposites working at so beautifully both against and with one another, Nina reached the summit of perfection: “I felt it. I’m perfect. It was perfect.”
The last note is bittersweet: perfection is reached through destruction. The break down of hierarchy within these binary opposites creates an internal implosion whereby union can only result in the annihilation of one. The White Swan, Nina’s troubled, ill self is tragically what persists and though she is content, having reached perfection, its resonant lesson is deafening: perfection is imperfect. An engaging and visceral presentation of thoughtful thematics, Black Swan is as ambitious, and as perfect, as its lead.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.