From the first shot of Black Swan (2010), we see the protagonist, Nina Seyers (played by Natalie Portman) immersed in her beloved discipline that is ballet. We see her dreaming of dancing the Swan Lake. Black Swan is a film about what goes on behind-the scenes in a world which most people don’t have the chance to see. Black Swan was a fairly low-budget film that leaned heavily on the screenplay and also led to a Best Actress Oscar win for Natalie Portman but most importantly, this film tells the story of an artist desperately seeking greatness, who must first endure suffering and sacrifice in order to get what she desires. So, how do you tell a story like this? Sure, one could easily start off by showing a character desiring greatness and how she defies all odds and practices hard, to pull off one of the greatest dance performances at the end that makes the jaws drop of everyone in the audience, or one could take the risk that Director Darren Aronofsky took with this character and created something unique. This article is, therefore, to examine the elements that the director used to tell the story of an obsessed performer and how the arrangement of the story defines the fate of the main character.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead
In ACT I, the terms Igniting incident, Desire and Dramatic question become prevalent. Every story has a turning point-the moment at which the protagonist realizes that they are no longer happy with themselves and they think to change that. This turning point is called the Igniting incident. This incident is what creates a Desire for the protagonist and catapults them into their path of change. In Black Swan, the Igniting incident comes with the news that the dance company will be performing Swan Lake this season, the very ballet that Nina had just dreamt of. The Desire that is presented to us here is that Nina wants to be chosen as the Swan Queen but as an audience we only care about the character’s desires when there is something at stake, when we understand theirs fears. Thus, the screenplay chooses to portray her home life to establish those fears. Nina lives with her mother, who is a former ballerina who never achieved greatness. She refuses to let Nina grow up and goes to the extent of decorating her room with cute dolls, stuffed animals and music boxes.
For Nina, her mother represents the mediocrity she fears and will come to despise. Since, the movie explains to us what she fears, then it starts off with what she desires but she can’t just walk up to her desire and take it, something must stand in her way. This is where the mentor (played by Vincent Cassel) steps in. This is a figure of absolute authority and what he offers to Nina, is actually a challenge. The mentor introduces the Dramatic question- Will Nina be able to push herself to her limits? Will she be able to shed her childlike innocent demeanor and become the Black Swan. So, driven by Fear and Desire, she practices harder and more importantly, makes her first uncharacteristic action. She goes to her mentor’s office and persuades him to give her the part. This action signals that she is ready to enter her arch of change. She gets the part of the Swan Queen and tastes her first victory and her desires expand but little did she know, this was the easy part.
In ACT II, the concepts of Struggle and Sacrifice come up. This is where she encounters obstacle after obstacle and in doing so, she is forced to change which she wouldn’t have otherwise. We see that Nina is being held back by her old self. She begins to change but takes it too far and we see how the path to Greatness is actually one of Self-Destruction. A key motivating factor in all of this is the Threat of Replacement. In Black Swan, this threat takes the form of Lily (played by Mila Kunis). She is the new girl and everything Nina is not. The screenplay describes Nina’s dancing as,
“Although her movement is incredibly precise, there’s a definite vulnerability.
Exactly as the White Swan should be: fear tinged with melancholy.”
Whereas, Lily’s dancing is defined as,
“Explosive, exudes sex”
Lily embodies the persona that Nina must adopt to play the Black Swan. As Nina, struggles to dance the part of the Black Swan, her mentor starts considering Lily as Nina’s replacement. This is what adds pressure and drives her to the most important part of ACT II- Descent into madness. Nina begins to go crazy, she starts seeing a double, first in a passerby, then in mirrors and finally in Lily. It is in fact the personification of her doubt, fear and insecurity that starts actively menacing her. Overwhelmed by the pressure, she starts to destroy herself. She disobeys her mother by going out with Lily, where she ends up doing drugs, making out with strangers and having sex with Lily. As the end of ACT II approaches, she has become so obsessed that she is completely out of control. Nina’s madness surges when she possibly kills Beth, injures her mother and has a hallucination of transforming into a swan and her pinnacle of self-destruction lays in waiting for her at the end.
In ACT III, we finally come to Transformation and Perfection, the climax of the story takes place during the final performance. The stakes are high and as Nina is at the crescendo of her madness, she can barely keep it together and in that, she realizes one terrible aspect that she is not ready. She still has a piece of her old-self. Nina is still full of self-doubt and upon seeing Lily flirting with the guy playing the role of the Prince (the Prince that rightfully belongs to the White Swan), Nina sees her doppelganger again. As, Nina is about to have the first taste of her big moment, she fails. The screenplay said,
“Nina freaks, jerking her body.
David’s grip SLIPS.
And, Nina SLAMS onto the stage.
It’s a horrific moment that feels like an eternity.”
Faced with this ultimate form of defeat, she finally makes the most important choice of her journey. She returns to her dressing room to find Lily sitting in her chair, who turns into her doppelganger and remarks “How about I dance the Black Swan for you.” Nina attacks her double, who fights back trying to strangle the life out of Nina, until she is finally pushed to finish her Transformation. She has finally destroyed her old-self. The story answers the Dramatic Question as Nina delivers the greatest performance of her life. The screenplay reads,
“It’s time for the Coda.
She takes a brief pause, closing her eyes once more, and then completely lets herself go.
She spins with ferocity. More black feathers burst out from her shoulders and back.
At last, she truly embodies the Black Swan.
The audience looks on, mesmerized. Too stunned to clap at first.”
Afterwards, Nina returns to her dressing room and finds out that she has not killed Lily but has ended up fatally wounding herself. Her undisrupted madness has led to the pinnacle of self-destruction but the show must go on and she returns onto the stage to perform the White Swan. Nina’s mentor has a line that didn’t make it into final cut which goes,
“What we do is beautiful, but fleeting.
Dance is not immortalized like music, poetry or art.
It doesn’t grow old in museums and churches.
It lives for now, for this moment only and this is your Moment.”
Nina looks into the crowd. The audience is hers. Her mother watches all teary-eyed and astounded. This is her Moment. Black Swan uses unique story elements to shape its story and in doing so expresses its own views on the themes of Sacrificing for your art. Black Swan tells the story of a young woman who desperately sacrifices everything, to obtain one fleeting moment of absolute perfection suggesting that “Absolute Perfection requires Absolute Sacrifice.” This does raise the question, “Do the ends justify the means?”