Editor’s Note: Those of you who have been reading since the beginning may have noticed we used Hoptellectual for the name of our monthly book club. Unfortunately, Brian and I have had a hard time coordinating books to read (seriously, we’re both reading way too many books right now). So we’re changing Hoptellectual to better reflect the intellectual spirit of the blog (we were both English majors after all…). Hoptellectual will run every week and focus on different topics based on the writer (we invite you to submit your own critical essays as well, we’d be happy to publish them and talk about them with you over a pint).
Fevers and Mirrors: Reflections in Aronofsky’s Black Swan
Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a truly gut-wrenching affair. The movie can be broken down to New-York-minute length segments, each one painted visceral and truthful by Aronofky’s choice of aggressive, almost violent, camera angles. Nina Sayers lives in a terrible world, one possessed entirely by her own fear of imperfection and the weight of her own ridiculous expectations. Perhaps the most unnerving part of Aronofsky’s world is that he surrounds Nina with various images of herself, each one more mortifying than the last. What leads Nina to her final performance? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but throughout Black Swan she is confronted with these various images of herself, none of which Nina can accept.
Going into the film, I knew very little of ballet, or dance in general (I probably wouldn’t have seen the film if I knew I’d have to examine feet so closely). I was stunned by just how many mirrors there were in practice spaces. Before, I naively thought it to be narcissism, but now I see them as tools of perfection. A good dancer, Josephine Baker, Fred Astaire, Merce Cunningham, has complete command of every part of the body. Every muscle movement is memorized, first in the brain, and internalized through the sight of the event. This act is crucial, because during a performance, the dance belongs to the observer rather than the dancer. Mirrors allow Nina to fit herself into the role of the audience, and as an audience member, she will tolerate nothing but perfection.
Aronofsky uses mirrors to show us different versions of Nina, the reflections building like waves interacting. In many ways, mirrors are the only way we have access to the physical representation of the “self,” whatever that may be. As a director, Aronofsky becomes increasingly more symbolic with his use of mirrors, particularly in Nina shattering the glass and finally assuming the role of the Black Swan, her one moment of total perfection. However, I’m much more interested in how other people see Nina and how this affects her.
Right away, we understand she is a perfectionist. Natalie Portman puts on a face made of glass, ready to break at any moment, and we understand how she deals with adversity: it can be overcome by attaining almost machine-like balance between the dancer and dance. Where does this pressure come from? Obviously, from her mother and the way she treats Nina, but even more disconcerting from how her mother views her.
The other way we can access the self is through images of the self, may they be pictures or paintings. Pictures, like mirrors, have a tendency to be less deceiving (unless taken by Mann Ray). Paintings are subject to artistic interpretation, and more importantly, artistic imperfection. Nina’s mother is a god-awful painter. Every single painting of Nina is a smudgy watercolor with asymmetrical features and enlarged lips. Sophomoric is a compliment to Nina’s mother, as she struggles to capture the basic essence of Nina. She looks young in every painting, her hair painted in a rather unflattering way, there because her mother knows she has hair and it must show up somewhere in the painting (regardless of how it affects the final product).
Therein lies the critical rift between Nina’s reflection and the paintings, the same rift that leaves Nina unable to embody the Black Swan. Paintings hold emotion, no matter how rudimentary the technique may be. Like dance, paintings are a matter of process judged by an audience. She only looks at her reflection, too scared to confront her mother’s paintings and the associated paintings. It’s as if she becomes more perfect by excluding imperfections, but Nina only comes off as ascetic and cold. It takes extreme action to break this mold.
So who is the real Nina? We see many. Her mother’s version of a child in need of protection? A violent mistake? Lilly’s version? Perhaps Lilly is Nina, if we want to follow the rhetoric of the Black Swan. We get a better idea from looking at Nina’s various reflections. Nina’s inability to embrace the dance makes her a liability to the entire ballet, and her lack of a reliable support network exacerbates this. In the end, we see a girl who knows nothing about herself. She knows nothing other than perfection, drive and her own reflection. But to succeed in her role in the ballet, she must understand that she controls more of the reflection than the machinery behind it.
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