“When ‘Assuming The Role’ Goes Too Far: Confronting the Engima of “Black Swan”

Nominated for 4 Golden Globes:

Best Motion Picture Drama

Best Performance by and Actress in a Motion Picture:  Natalie Portman

Best Performance by and Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture:  Mila Kunis

Best Director of a Motion Picture:  Darren Aronofsky


“Become the Role,” “Transcend to greater heights,” “You need to lose yourself,” “Perfection isn’t enough,” “Feel the music, be the rhythm,”…..how many times as artists do we hear these words?  For others, how many times do we say these words to students, colleagues, and even professionals?  Not untypical, directors and choreographers, coaches and professors, instructors and pedagogues all use these thoughts as a means to thrust an artist away from the constraints of reality, of their own lives and, instead, link their persona, emotions, thoughts, and past experiences to the character they are attempting to portray.

But when does “assuming a role” go too far?

Black Swan is psychological thriller set in the world of New York City ballet, Black Swan stars Natalie Portman as Nina, a featured dancer who finds herself locked in a web of competitive intrigue with a new rival at the company (Mila Kunis). A Fox Searchlight Pictures release by visionary director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler), Black Swan takes a thrilling and, at times, terrifying journey through the psyche of a young ballerina whose starring role as the duplicitous swan queen turns out to be a part for which she becomes frighteningly perfect. Black Swan follows the story of Nina (Portman), a ballerina in a New York City ballet company whose life, like all those in her profession, is completely consumed with dance. She lives with her retired ballerina mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) who zealously supports her daughter’s professional ambition. When artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for the opening production of their new season, Swan Lake, Nina is his first choice. But Nina has competition: a new dancer, Lily (Kunis), who impresses Leroy as well (artistically and perhaps sexually). Swan Lake requires a dancer who can play both the White Swan with innocence and grace, and the Black Swan, who represents guile and sensuality. Although Nina fits the White Swan role perfectly, Lily is the personification of the Black Swan. As the two young dancers expand their rivalry into a twisted friendship, Nina begins to experience a connection to her dark side, and  a recklessness that threatens to destroy her.


Portman as the Black Swan


On a purely aesthetic note, Black Swan was well produced and expertly directed by Aronofsky.  Many of the camera angles were edgy and dissonant; for example, a rehearsal in which the entire dance sequence is shot from the perspective of the violinist playing the music, overlooking his violin.  The director catered to Nina’s, at first awkward and then unbalanced self and became more and more present as the film lead to its abominable conclusion.  The choreography and costuming was lovely, and contrary to popular opinion what is most attractive about Black Swan is not the 2 minute lesbian scene that brought a multitude of twenty-something men to the theatre to see a movie that is essentially about classical music, ballet, and the deconstruction of an artist (genius on the part of the director and screen-writer). Rather, it is the character of Nina who enthrals.  It is her passion and her obsession, her dual personas, her need to fight for the role she believes is hers–artistically and personally–it is her struggle to remain centred and focused amidst the competitive nature of her colleagues, especially Lily.

The genius point of this film is that Nina’s instability affects everything around her, including us–the third gaze. The third-gaze is a tactic that was used by Bellini in “Lucia di Lammermoor,” for example.  When a character like Lucia or Nina finally succumbs to their insanity there is a scene in which they are fully exposed in their illness and the audience, as well as the subsidiary characters in the scene, gazes at them in an attempt to understand who they are or what they have become.  As I sat there, and perhaps because I understand Nina’s unquenchable thirst to be the character and achieve perfection as would anyone who lives a life embroiled in the arts, I began to feel unsettled and even nervous, at times.  At first you want to slap her silly because she is so naive and needs to inherit some guts and gall, but then you realize that this poor young woman is a by-product of a mother who is vicariously living a career through her daughter.  As sick as this is, you feel for the mother’s own destruction and for what she does to Nina, but you also understand Nina’s frustration and need to free herself from a mother who is suffocating, over-bearing, and much too involved in keeping control (there is definitely something psychotic about keeping your twenty-something daughter in a room filled with stuffed animals fit for an 8 year old).

The moment of transcendence begins


With Lincoln Center as its backdrop, the action brought a deep sense of realism for me, and perhaps for others who live artistic lives.  Natalie Portman gave a magnificent performance, a point that is supported by our changing feelings toward her and her plight for artistic perfection.  Her alternate personality (the Black Swan) is one that we want to see, be seduced by, and experience viscerally, and yet we are frightened by its consequence. We know it will destroy her and yet we desire that destruction and watch anxiously for the moment of rupture.  The epitome of a good actress is one that makes you love her and hate her at the same time.

The ultimate feeling that I would like to impress about this film is that it was more realistic than many will realize.  It is not merely a fictional tale concocted by someone’s screwed up fantasy about Ballerinas or the artistic stage; rather, it is a true-to-life example of what might happen if an artist assumes a role too intensely.  Can you still lose yourself and maintain your sanity?  Is this a necessary confrontation that we must all experience as artists? Can we handle it?  Black Swan’s enigma is not unsolvable, yet to understand what happened to Nina we must put her slippers on and ask ourselves whether art demands our every ounce…and whether we might have done anything different.  Isn’t what Nina experienced in the final scene, where she spawns the feathered wings of the Black Swan and becomes her, ideally what we aspire to–that moment of transcendence where we have served art beyond life, beyond ourselves, and beyond reality.  For some, that moment may never happen. For those who experience it…choose wisely and know your boundaries.