Camera as Psychosis: The Cinematography of Black Swan

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As she makes her way through the backstage behind the curtain at State University of New York at Purchase, one can tell all is not right with Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman). The camera trails in front her, sycophantically, as she is replete with hypnotic beauty in black and white, still standing out from the grey walls and dark surroundings. Her body quivers powerfully and almost orgasmically. The only thing the audience needs to see is Nina’s eyes to see nothing is right, even as her arms transform, and the camera steps forwards briefly to gaze upon the face that is covered in makeup to reveal that Nina has mutated into something else entirely. But is it real? Who is really seeing this? The cinematography in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan plays a crucial role in understanding the film’s depiction of psychosis. Nina is one of Aronofsky’s least sane characters, but utilizing various camera tricks and a kind of meta-reflexivity, there is a subtle insanity that works behind each shot to confuse the audience as much as Nina is, while the vérité style with which it is shot allows the film’s foundation to be primarily subjective. Few films play up schlocky horror against dramatic portrayals of mental illness so well, and Black Swan is one of them.

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Movement

Movement is critical within the world of Black Swan. Created as a complementary companion piece to Aronofsky’s previous film The Wrestler, movement lends itself to understanding what goes on in Nina’s mind. Nina is a woman who constantly struggles for perfection and is almost never still. Even when she is still, something else must be moving around her. Her daily grind includes obsessive practicing in her mother’s Upper West End apartment (in these practicing scenes, the camera is tilted even five or ten degrees, never offering perfection), walking to the subway, and then to the stage. The camera, therefore, always moves with her. It trails behind her, like the psychosis she feels sitting at the back of her mind, stalking her every move and understanding of the world. On the subway, she stands still, but the camera shakes and judders uncontrollably, a hint at irony and a knowing allusion to her uncontrollable insanity. Even when she sits, silently fending off an older man making lewd gestures at her, the camera is never static. Its nods to the Dardenne Brothers Le Promesse are telling with its off the cuff intimacy.

The irony here is telling. The camera almost has a mind of its own whenever and wherever it goes, and the vérité style with which the film is shot is reminiscent of documentaries such as Gimme Shelter (Maysles, 1970) and Hoop Dreams (James, 1994). Cinema vérité is cinema of truth, which intentionally goes against the ideas of the film. In Black Swan, nothing is true. Though Nina seeks perfection in everything she does, it is not true. It is a performance. That shaking, though, connects to a lack of control, completely the opposite of the world that Nina inhabits. Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the director of the production of Swan Lake Nina is starring in, shouts viciously at her, “Control it!” at the same time as the camera spins with a mix of meticulous authority and, finally, a loss of that discipline. We see this rehearsal scene through the eyes of Nina, the point of view shot literally spinning around. Therefore, we also see her stumble, her drive for perfection consuming her.

What the style of filmmaking does allow, however, is for there to be a ground within reality.  As aforementioned, cinema vérité has been primarily used for documentaries, especially those that observe things. With that in mind, the style of movement of the camera and its lack of real restriction in terms of movement serve to make the world and the people of Black Swan nightmarishly real. Aronofsky’s film is an amalgamation of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet, Dostoyevsky’s short story “The Double”, and Satoshi Kon’s anime thriller Perfect Blue. Thus, to try to reel in the audience into a different kind of reality is an ironic juxtaposition of three overtly fictitious works (their level of notoriety varying) and ones that do not bother to hide their artificiality.

There is another irony within Black Swan with regard to the camera’s movement; although one would assume that a film with ballet would have sequences of shots that, in essence, floated with the dancers, there is not. This is, by no means, Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes nor any other musical of similar transcendent quality. Although thematically inspired by that film, Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique seem to intentionally forfend that idea of fantasy. Aronofsky wants to make the film seem as real as possible, because, to Nina, it is all real. She cannot distinguish between reality and fantasy. That is how much her desire to be perfect has destroyed her. The closest thing that we get in terms of elegant cinematography are bookends: the dream that begins the film and the nightmare that ends it.

The film begins with the dream of perfection, as it were. The camera seemingly dancing with Nina and her delicate feet as she performs as the White Swan in the dream. But this smooth camerawork does not last for long, as that shot, which lasts 28 seconds, is replaced by the kineticism that fills the rest of the film. Not even in her dreams is Nina capable of maintaining mental control.

In the penultimate sequence, Nina is ready for the audience and ready to give it her last shot, but, on stage as Nina spins with deftness, the camera does not follow her. Instead, it stays distanced, and the audience sees her perfection. Here, although the film remains subjective to Nina’s point of view, it seems to be manipulated by Nina. She does not, unlike the rest of the film, need the camera to be behind her, nor does her crazed mentality need to sit on the edge. What Nina needs and wants is an audience, and that is what the camera gives to her, staying to stage left and drifting to the center and in front as the audience. The shot lasts for 25 seconds, enough to encompass that one sequence. This change of two angles is how Nina sees herself and what she has longed for: perfection.

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Double, Double

With its primary inspirations being Swan Lake, “The Double”, and Perfect Blue, it would therefore be necessary that there be doubles in the film. That manifests itself in the form of Lily (Mila Kunis), Nina’s dirtier, naughtier, sexier doppelgänger. Lily is everything Nina needs to be but hates. But, with all hate and contempt comes fascination and mild obsession. Lily is the kind of person who would plague any competitor’s mind and Nina is the kind of person who would allow that kind of thing to get to her. Thus, the cinematography plays with this a great deal, even offering sequences of subverted meta-reflexivity: where the camera should be looking at itself, but offers something else entirely.

The film is rightfully plagued with doubles and mirrors. There is a great sense of paranoia that we feel because it is as if we are Nina herself. Before Nina even properly meets Lily, she sees her through the subway but initially sees it as herself. The very possibility of competition, especially from someone who looks like her, throws her off.

The importance of doubles within the film is not limited to paranoia but is crucial to understanding the play that they are performing. As is explained within the film by Thomas, one actress plays both roles, the White Swan and the Black Swan. The White Swan is pure, virginal, innocent, while the Black Swan is deceptive, sensual, and carnal. Nina, having claimed the role of the Swan Queen, must be both. The film is, in essence, a chronicle of her struggle to do so, to channel and manifest those ideas and mature as a woman. The doubles, though, are conjured in a depraved way, driving Nina insane.

Almost everything is a double, and what is fascinating about how this is used in the film is that Aronofsky manages to make his audience feel as paranoid as Nina does. The doubles do not manifest themselves in the same way every time. Fascinatingly, Aronofsky allows there to be oscillation between Portman and Kunis’ guises, like the creation of a hybrid creature (not unlike Nina’s half transformation into the Black Swan). As Nina walks on the sidewalk in the streets of New York City on the Upper West Side, she sees a woman wearing a black coat. The camera is behind her and we get a split second look the woman’s face. Initially, we assume it is Lily, but closer inspection reveals it to be a face that is both Nina and Lily’s. The faces look similar enough that an unassuming audience member would guess one or the other, but they are both, which is what Nina must be for the ballet and is, thus far, unable to be. This sequence, which is primarily subjective, does employ a necessary shot/reverse shot (reaction shot)/shot technique, but it is important for there to be a juxtaposition of Nina’s actual face and that of the double’s.

The difference in the actresses’ faces is important to note. Natalie Portman’s face, while retaining the typical strong cheekbones of any attractive, working actress, are soft and angelic. She has a mildly rounded face, the overall effect suggesting a childlike quality that is on the edge of maturation (a quality which came in handy for her first role in Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional). In comparison, Mila Kunis has much harsher features, ones that conjure the concepts of sexuality and deviousness to mind. She, unlike Portman, does not suggest any kind of innocence. Her cheekbones are more sculpted and more defined and her eyes slant ever slightly upwards (further defined by some of the eyeliner she employs in the film). Portman is a kitten while Kunis is the prowling cat. The camera makes sure to gaze upon these visages throughout the film to establish the similarities and differences. Using that knowledge given to the audience, the faces converge in the film, sometimes looking more like one actress than the other. The point is that they complement one another, and Aronofsky’s camera makes sure that the audience understands that the doppelganger concept within the film is more from Nina’s imagination than from reality. It is her psychosis which is causing her to blend these faces into something sinister and antagonistic.

In the ballet world and in the world of the film, mirrors are everywhere. Not only do they serve as a reflection of the self but as a medium ripe for eye play. In innumerable sequences in the film, Nina sees something which is not right, and often not real, within the mirror. One sequence is subtle, as Nina just looks in the mirror and sees someone else, her doppelganger, looking back at her. But the more obsessive sequences are more sinister. Whilst in the bathroom at a small gala, Nina picks at her cuticle. It is a flaw on her body that she must not have, because she must be perfect. The small pick leads her to look into the mirror and pull a long piece of skin off of her finger entirely. She looks back at her finger and it is fine, an event which is inexplicable. Aronofsky, as evidenced by this scene, enjoys playing with the subverted sense of meta-reflexivity: Nina looks at her reflection and her reflection becomes an entire other being. The ideas of utilizing a mirror as reflection and self-introspection are crushed when one is rendered unable to do that. Nina, in a fitting, peers into a mirror with endless versions of herself, a typical illusion of the reflective surface offering numerous possibilities to who Nina is and can be. But one of those Ninas is scratching at the rash on her back and turns to look back at Nina to give her a menacing stare. Nina, after rehearsal, stands in a practice room when the lights go off, while her reflection turns around to look at her as Nina backs up into the mirror. Utilizing water as a reflective surface, the Nina/Lily hybrid looks down at her as she rests in her bath. All of these examples, frightening as they are, reveal more about Nina as a person in terms of her mental illness. She is unable to control her mind, and worse, she is unable to control how she sees herself. The film reveals itself to be one describing a young woman who must fight against herself in order to be the person she “needs to be” for a certain role, a woman who is under enormous pressure to be something else.

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The film’s vérité style does not only ground it in a sense of reality, but also gives it a sense of perspective, important in a film where one is essentially trapped inside the mind of a crazed person. Jumping off of the loose “crazy lady” genre tropes which were set by Roman Polanski with Repulsion (a film which begins with an intense close up of Catherine Deneuve’s eye), Aronofsky establishes psychotic claustrophobia by entering her dreams and then constantly showing her point of view. This sense of point of view is not as overt as featuring every sequence from the point of view from Nina. The technique is slightly more subtle. The audience still understands that the film is from Nina’s perspective, as only she is having these hallucinations. The mirror scenes are most indicative of this style, but two other sequences in particular disinter these ideas.

Lily convinces Nina to go out to dinner with her as an apology, and it leads to Nina willingly drinking her MDMA (presumably) spiked vodka cranberry. Once Nina begins “rolling”, Lily, Nina, and two boys from the bar go clubbing in a sequence that is as hypnotic as it is terrifying. The Chemical Brothers’ delirious “Don’t Think” blares in the club as red and green lights flash on and off in a strobing effect as we see Nina dancing. The red represents passion and desire while the green represents envy. In nearly every frame of this sequence, there is something manipulated within the frame, such as an object or image that recalls themes within the film. A moon, the dark sorcerer from Swan Lake, and Nina as the Black Swan permeate the sequence. Momentarily, the electronic dance music lets up, replaced by Clint Mansell’s atmospheric and tense nightmare lullaby (which is Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” played in reverse at a slower tempo), and Nina looks around. For one frame, Lily’s face is superimposed onto Nina’s face, just prior to Lily joining in and dancing with Nina. Soon after, the music begins again. The inclusion of a tonal interlude in the sequence, one that further establishes the nightmare, is indicative of the subjectivity of the film. Only she experiences this moment, even while other people are lost in the din of debauchery, and only she half-realizes the nightmare she is enduring, what with the plethora of doubles within the sequence itself. Her obsession with Lily continues to corrode what little sanity she has left.

In the following sequence, Nina brings Lily back to her apartment and locks her mother out of her room. The two begin passionately kissing and Aronofsky knowingly uses the Male Gaze for what follows. The two get on Nina’s bed, almost soiling the pink innocence which had previously ruled over Nina’s life, and Lily performs cunnilingus on Nina. We see a shot of Nina arching her back in pleasure and then looking down at Lily, cutting to Lily looking up at Nina. Only, the face that comes up is not Lily’s, but, again, an amalgam of Lily and Nina. She gets up and backs away and Lily’s face is back to normal. As Lily returns to performing oral sex, the tattoo on her back mutates and grows, looking down from the same angle that Nina would see it. We, and Nina, see every sinew in Lily’s back, almost in admiration. These perspective shots are inherent to understanding that, even in ecstasy, Nina still has no control.

What is interesting about these hedonistic sequences is that they are so subjective that it is revealed that neither really happened to the extent that we see them in the film. Nina may have gone clubbing, but the nightmare she endures is not the same story that Lily remembers. Nor did Lily and Nina have sex together. Nina is so fixated on competition that she may have begun to desire the same thing that she hates: herself. If Lily is indeed a manifestation of herself, to some extent, and what she needs to be, this strange process of maturation necessitates that she develop a monomania with discovering herself. Thomas suggests, after the gala, that Nina must play with herself in order to channel the carnal elements of the character she will play, but delving deep into her mind is something Nina has never done before, a piece of self-introspection that she has never had to do and thus is uncomfortable with. This is her vulnerable deranged mind fighting that, unable to cope with becoming a woman.

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Conclusion

Darren Aronofsky’s lurid tale of obsession and madness is, in a playful way, ironic. It is a dark tale of a woman who has no control over herself while she lives and works for a specific kind of perfection that necessitates control. The cinematography reinforces these combative concepts, more definitively revealing the dementia of the film: the hand held style puts a focus on the surreality of the film while giving it an intimacy, making what Nina fears and is obsessed with what the audience fears and becomes obsessed with, the perpetual employment of doubles in the film are sinister allusions to Nina’s self-hatred, and the subjectivity of the film’s shots reveal the subjectivity of the film overall, showing that Nina’s fever dream is hers and hers alone. Drawing from a number of sources that explore paranoia, desire, and how living for one’s art may destroy the artist, Black Swan becomes an immaculate, maybe even perfect, blend of ideas, images, and obsessions.

Bibliography

Black Swan. Dir. Darren Aronofsky. Perf. Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel. 20 Century Fox, 2010. Blu-ray.

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