I’ll cut to the chase: I liked Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (as I did Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, and The Wrestler). Would I put Black Swan on my top-five list of cinematic experiences? Probably not. But, I liked the film–and more than marginally so. (A sentiment equivalent to 4 out of 5 Netflix stars, perhaps?)
Despite being enthralled by the acting, cinematography, and dance work, I can’t say that my viewing experience was wholly satisfying, mostly because I had no idea what central message Black Swan was working towards. “What is the point?,” I remember wondering at the end of the film, credits rolling, as I unplugged my Roku and headed to bed.
A few days later, after I had time to mull over the film, I still didn’t have any answers. What’s worse, my question transformed into something more unsettling: “Is there a point?” Does Black Swan have a chief or singular message? Surely, films of Black Swan’s caliber–ahem, Oscar-nominated productions with renowned directors–should tell viewers something.
Ok. I know what you’re thinking: “But, but, but…isn’t Black Swan about artistic and bodily perfection, sexual repression, stage mothers, ageism, psychological bifurcation, or…?” (The list could go on.) Yes, Black Swan indeed touches on these ideas, but herein lies the rub: Although film has rich thematic content, it by design lacks a central message that would unite these disparate narrative threads, and thus, clarify their relationship to one another.
Such a unifying moment usually occurs in the text’s conclusion (what my Introduction to Fiction students would call the “end orientation). However, this doesn’t happen in the Black Swan. Instead, the film builds towards an anti-conclusion. To be sure, Black Swan contained all of the traditional plot elements and also largely presented them in the expected order: exposition, inciting moment, rising action, climax, falling action, conclusion. But after we’re ushered rapidly through the falling action, we’re suddenly cut loose from the text, set adrift, and ultimately robbed of knowing the central meaning of our entire viewing journey.
Let me explain. First, I want to outline what I see as the film’s end orientation. [Fair warning: SPOILER ALERT.] As I understand it, Black Swan‘s conclusion begins with Nina’s violent, deadly confrontation with rival dancer, Lily, (played by Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, respectively) in Nina’s private dressing room. In killing Lily with a shard from a broken mirror, Nina sheds her innocence, temerity, and dispassion. These qualities make Nina’s performance as the White Swan convincing, but they cause her interpretation of the Black Swan to seem hollow and affected. Murdering Lily in a fit of rage, then, allows Nina to finally transform into an authentic Black Swan–that is, one whose sexual command and power cannot be denied. [Note: Nina plays two roles in Swan Lake: Odette, the “white swan,” and Odile, the “black swan.”] What is more, Nina’s performance of the Black Swan is so intense–so breathtakingly and terrifyingly perfect–that Nina ceases to act like the black swan. Instead, she becomes the creature, a metamorphosis Nina has earlier denied. Indeed, black feathers had begun sprouting from her back, but she ripped them out. During her Black Swan dance, these feathers not only return, but also develop into full-fledged wings. Nina is the Black Swan, and her murderous rage backstage made her onstage transformation possible.
Nina cannot remain as the Back Swan, however. The story line of Swan Lake mandates that Nina switch from the role of Odile, the Black Swan, to that of Odette, the White Swan, in the ballet’s last scene. Luckily for Nina, when she returns to her dressing room and is confronted with the horror of murdering Lily, she endures yet another shock: Lily is alive; no murdered has occurred at all. With this realization, Nina’s innocence is restored, and she now can re-assume the role of Odette. In the ballet’s final moments, Odette kills herself by jumping into Swan Lake, an act Nina simulates by falling from an elevated stage piece onto a crash pad concealed from the audience. Yet, Nina, too, has harmed herself. As dancers from the corps and the ballet director rush to the crash pad to congratulate Nina, they discover that she has a gaping wound in her stomach. To us, the film’s viewers, Nina’s injury isn’t much of a surprise, as we saw blood seep through the white satin of her Odette costume before she “leapt” into Swan Lake. As everyone–film viewers included–ponder over the “how” and “why” of Nina’s injury, she mutters something about “it” being “perfect” and then disappears from the screen as the credits begin to roll across a now, all-white background.
Finis. The end. Done.
I’m calling this an “anti-conclusion” because it doesn’t entertain viewers’ attempts to critically examine the film’s entire story arc. Nothing seems to “come together” in the final moments of the film other than the end itself. Sure, we can look back on Black Swan and point to the ways that Nina’s obsessive drive for perfection and recognition result in her almost complete mental and physical disintegration. Yet, is this the central message Black Swan really is working towards? (Or, rather, one of them?) The film, in my view, isn’t that critical of Nina (although it indeed turns her into a grotesque spectacle). So, in some ways, I agree with Roger Ebert’s assessment that
“The tragedy of Nina, and of many young performers and athletes, is that perfection in one area of life has led to sacrifices in many of the others. At a young age, everything becomes focused on pleasing someone (a parent, a coach, a partner), and somehow it gets wired in that the person can never be pleased. One becomes perfect in every area except for life itself.”
However, I don’t think that Black Swan‘s conclusion necessarily takes us to this point despite the fact that earlier moments in the film suggest it is working towards a grand statement about the pitfalls of perfectionism.
Even Ebert himself ultimately argues for a different view of the film’s conclusion, and accordingly, the entire piece itself. In the same review I referenced above, Ebert proclaims that the film “has a beauty” and all of the “themes…come together in a grand exhilaration of towering passion.” Such a proclamation is highly significant, and it supports what I’ve been saying about the film all along. In the conclusion, the film’s themes ultimately reduce to an aesthetic rather than a substantive statement (e.g., the film is “beauty” and “passion”). Black Swan, based on its conclusion, is an experience: it is image (white satin, black makeup, thin bodies), it is visceral (bloody toenails, cracking toe shoes), it is psychological (Nina’s incomplete grasp on reality), it is emotional (Nina’s elation after winning the lead role). To return to my original question about whether the movie has a “point”: yes, and no. As Ebert relates, the film is not meant to be understood in “practical terms” in that it works against our standard approach to interpretation. Overall, then, sometimes we cannot “assume that a work of art is its content,” and this holds true for Black Swan, especially .
What do you think about Black Swan‘s ending? Does the film have more content than I’ve been claiming, or is it ultimately an aesthetic experience?
 Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. “Against Interpretation.” New York: Picador, 2001 (1966). 3.