Robbed of Knowing: Black Swan’s Anti-Conclusion

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 [1].

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?

[1] Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. “Against Interpretation.” New York: Picador, 2001 (1966). 3.

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Posted in Everything in Between, Visual Media
5 comments on “Robbed of Knowing: Black Swan’s Anti-Conclusion
  1. Erin says:

    Amy,

    I think you really hit upon what bothered me about the film. Like you, I loved it, but I struggled to put together all of themes it touches upon into a final message. As you say, the film is an experience.

    While reading your post it did occur to me that the anti-conclusion you mention could represent the complexity of human experience. Part of what I enjoyed about the film was that it seemed to be from Nina’s perspective. Just as she was unsure of what was real and what wasn’t, we were unsure. And just as our lives do not build to a climax, Nina’s life does not. Rather, her life is a serious of interactions, both real and imagined, that radically re-shape Nina (both literally and figuratively).

    Perhaps that is a cop-out answer, I’m not sure. But it does raise another question for me, and that is: why does Nina’s behavior barely effect any of the other characters? The world seems to converge on Nina, but she is like a black hole – nothing gets out. Although, perhaps again this is just a comment on the basic selfishness and self-interest of human nature.

    Anyways, I enjoyed reading your post, it was far more well thought out than my response!

    • Amy says:

      Erin — I also felt that my reading, when it was finished, was kind of a cop-out. Shouldn’t I be able to come up with something more substantive than the film is an experience which ultimately can be best appreciated on an aesthetic level? Really?

      But I do like your reading, and I don’t think you’re taking the easy way out at all.

      I also think it’s interesting that you compared Nina to a black hole — she’s a trap (she takes everything in), yet she’s an absence. I guess that’s kind of how I’d describe the film, too.

      Also, have you seen The Fountain? Now THAT is a strange ending.

  2. Atje says:

    Hi Amy,

    I just happened upon your blog and thought that your interpretation of Black Swan as an experience is quite interesting. (To give some background info on myself here, I’m a PhD candidate as well, working in humanities, international relations, philosophy and a couple of other fields – so that’s basically the background with which I watched the film)

    When I saw Black Swan, what struck me is how strongly mental illness is characterised precisely by the suspension of narrativity. Something can no longer be explained, and that is when one’s identity breaks down, which is what, in my opinion, happened to Nina.

    I’d be curious to hear what you think.

    • Amy says:

      I like that — mental illness in the film as being linked with the dissolution of narrative. A part of me hesitates to characterize Nina’s as being mentally “ill,” though. The characters in the film who want to approach Nina’s behavior as such *also *aren’t operating in “reality” or with a rational outlook on the world. (Namely, I’m thinking of her mother.) I wonder, then, if the film presents Nina’s mental state to us as something that is simply “other” rather than aberrant or abnormal? (That is, the film doesn’t give us a reliable illustration of “sanity” by which to measure Nina’s actions.) What do you think?

      Also, your statement about narrative reminds me of Cathy Caruth’s _Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History_. It’s been a while since I’ve read her book (maybe you know it better than I do?), but from what I recall, she claims that trauma represents a disruption in narrative: a psychologically damaging event occurs; the emotional after-effects of this event repeatedly re-emerge in the individual’s psyche and continue to plague him/her long after the initial event has passed. So, trauma is not the event, but the feelings that are created by it. Most importantly, these feelings are dissociated from the event itself, and this is why Caruth claims that trauma represents the absence of narrative: there is no unity or linear trajectory between the initial, traumatic event and its lingering after-effects. (Trauma as a loop?) Whew. Tangent. But a fun one!

  3. Dlo says:

    On the surface, the movie seems to be making a comment on the sickness that is repression in the name of perfection Ending the film with Nina having stabbed herself and saying “now things are perfect” while she’s smiling, happy and at peace, seems to be driving this point home as one can only find perfection–sinlessness and pure of thought–if they’re dead. However, that you, and I’m sure others, felt that something was missing may suggest a problem with the narrative/director.

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Dr. Amy Rubens
I'm an "ambulant scholar," and I move among several worlds. As a professor of English, I research and write for audiences within and outside of academia. As a teacher of writing, literature, and culture, I facilitate learning. As a blogger, I critique, question, and reflect. Learn more about this blog and the work I do as a professor and workplace writing consultant.

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