“What We Achieve Inwardly Will Change Outer Reality:” Metamorphosis and Mirrors in “Black Swan”

Much has been said and written about Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, Black Swan: since its release, it has received an incredible number of nominations (more than 70) at international film festivals and is one of the possible winners at the upcoming Academy Awards (it has been nominated in five categories). Moreover, the controversy on the costumes between Rodarte’s Mulleavy sisters and Amy Westcott has sparked further interest in the media.

If you are regular readers of this blog, I’m sure you were expecting an overview on the costumes, but I’ve decided to focus on something different. While I was watching the movie at the cinema, I realized the obsessive return of some visual themes – the mirror; the actions of cutting, piercing and extracting; claustrophobia – so I’ll try to give a personal interpretation of these, using the comparison to two classic horror movies, Profondo Rosso (1975) by Dario Argento and Carrie (1976) by Brian de Palma. Of course, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, there’s a spoiler alert!

First of all, let’s take a look at the flat where Nina, the protagonist, lives with her mother Erica.

One of the most important locations is a sort of rehearsal room where she practices her routines and customizes her pointe shoes. Three scenes are set in this room: its main feature is a three-fold mirror which, in this case, has a practical use.

Nina’s flat is full of mirrors. They all have an important narrative function, because they reflect the fragmentation of her self, culminating in the rise of the “black swan”, her dark side, willing to disobey her mother’s orders, to fall for her nemesis  – the ballerina Lily – and to kill her good side, the “white swan”. The round mirror above, inscribed in a circular set of mirrors, literally fragments the reflected figure: it’s not a coincidence that it appears in an important scene, when Nina and Lily arrive at the flat after a night out, the prelude to their – apparent [1] – sexual intercourse.

The corridor in her house, with lots of framed paintings and mirrors on the walls, is certainly one of the scariest locations of the movie. Four scenes are set in it and the protagonist is always shot from behind: thanks to this peculiar point of view, it is as if the audience identifies with her, walking through the half-lit corridor and facing the unknown (a topos of horror cinema).  This location definitely introduces an important theme of the movie, that is claustrophobia and isolation. It mirrors Nina’s (she lives for ballet, eliminating all distractions) and her mother’s state of mind, and will eventually determine the tragic ending of the story.

The paintings in the corridor introduce an important room, Erica’s atelier, where she spends most of her day painting drawings inspired to her daughter. These scary works of art come to life in the second part of the movie, when Nina’s self is dominated by her paranoia.

They are a clear reference to the horrifying paintings hung in Helga Ulmann’s apartment, in the movie by Dario Argento. They also have a narrative function, because Marcus, the protagonist, solves the mystery of Helga’s death thanks to a mirror reflecting the painting with screaming faces behind him.

Nina’s bedroom is another disturbing location: it looks like a little girl’s bedroom, all pink and full of stuffed animals. It reveals the twisted relationship between mother and daughter, because Erica treats Nina like a little girl: she calls her “sweet girl”, “sweetheart”, “sweetie”; she medicates her wounds and cuts her finger nails; she’s in total control of her daughter’s life and career. At first, Nina is in thrall to her, but she becomes more and more self-conscious, until she openly rebels to her authority. In the bedroom, we can find a big oval standing mirror and tiny mirrors covering the inside of a ballerina music box, another childish element in Nina/Erica relationship, because its music serves as lullaby for the girl.

Erica controls her daugher by putting on and taking off her clothes and accessories, too. This happens, for example, when Nina goes back home after a benefit gala. At the gala, a mirror is featured in the toilet where Nina goes because she thinks her finger is bleeding (another hallucination).

In the bathroom of the flat there’s of course a mirror, important because it reveals a rash on Nina’s shoulder, which will turn into the physical sign of her metamorphosis into the black swan.

A mirror can be seen in the kitchen, too. I think this is the nth unsettling room of the flat, because it’s dimly lit most of the time. The screencap above is taken from the scene where Erica offers Nina some cake (topped with sugar ballerinas) to celebrate her first leading role in a ballet (Odette/Odile in Swan Lake by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky). Erica’s reaction to Nina’s refusal to eat the cake shows a turmoil in the character: her controlled anger, followed by a cheerful attitude, is extremely scary.

The atmosphere in Nina’s kitchen reminds me of that in Carrie White’s. Both girls are dominated by intrusive mothers and live in dimly lit houses, closed to any intrusion from outside. Margaret, Carrie’s mother, is a Christian fundamentalist whose radical vision of life (everything is sin, everything – especially vanity and sex – comes from the devil) deeply influences the girl.

Daylight in Nina’s flat can only be seen in three scenes – when she has breakfast (the grapefruit she eats is defined as “pink” and “preeeetty”); when she wakes up after a night out with Lily; the same day, when she leaves to go to the theatre. Daylight doesn’t symbolize her opening up to the outside, but her giving voice to her dark side.

The theatre where Nina spends most of her day is actually the Performing Arts Center at the Purchase College in New York, a place dominated by the colour grey [2] and by mirrors. They are important during rehearsals for their primary function – reflecting movements, thus allowing the ballerina to see her moves and to eventually correct herself – but in the narration they are given other functions, too.

The screencap above is taken from a beautiful scene: Nina and a teacher are rehearsing a specific moment of Swan Lake – when the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart casts his spell on princess Odette. Their movements are synchronous – same movements at the same time: Nina finds her double in the teacher, but their movements are reflected by the mirrored walls, too. This is just one of the ways with which the director hints at Nina’s split self.

The mirrors among which she stands in the dressmaker’s shop – the reflection is infinite – hints at the same concept. Please take a look at the picture on the left, depicting the mask worn by Van Rothbart in the second half of the ballet, which haunts Nina’s hallucinations.

Mirrors in a dressing room are common, but in the movie they are highly symbolical: in the first scene, Nina doesn’t sit next to the other ballerinas, she’s physically and emotionally detached from them, and her reflection on a round mirror is set apart from the reflections of the others. In the second scene set in the dressing room, Nina wants to confront Lily about Thomas [3] and, again, her reflection is set apart from those present.

An important moment in the movie is when Nina, appointed prima ballerina, moves to the dressing room of the former prima ballerina, Beth. This is a symbolical achievement – her supremacy is visible, now she has her own dressing room – but represents, at the same time, a psychological turn in her character. When Beth comes to know her dismissal, she smashes the mirrors in the room and runs away; Nina watches the scene, then enters the room. She takes a red lipstick (symbol of seduction) from the table and steals it; later, we will learn she has stolen other objects from Beth – a nail file and a half-empty bottle of Chanel n°5 included – in an attempt to make a piece of Beth’s magic (and madness) her own. When she starts experiencing hallucinations and going deep into paranoia, she gives Beth back her possessions, but it’s too late: the metamorphosis cannot be stopped.

Other scenes are set in the same room: just before the performance, Nina applies her make-up, a white mask of greasepaint which will turn her into Odette, the white swan. Odile, the black swan, is still dormant but is ready to take control: her metal crown is waiting to be worn.

The dressing room and a mirror are involved in one of the most dramatic scenes of the movie. As Nina plays both roles, she metaphorically has to kill the white swan to dress the part of the black swan. This is dramatized using Nina’s nemesis, Lily, who has been chosen as her understudy. Nina thinks Lily wants to take her part, so she violently pushes her into a mirror and – she thinks – kills her. Lily represents the girl Nina would like to be (wild, sexy, open-minded and straightforward), so it’s not true Lily haunts her: it’s the contrary.

After attacking her enemy and hiding her corpse in the toilet, Nina brilliantly dances in the role of Odette, but later realizes the tragic truth: she has stabbed herself with a splinter of mirror so she is about to totally embody the character she’s playing, the doomed Odette, who will break Von Rothbart’s spell by committing suicide.

As I have written in the introduction, besides mirrors, some actions recur in the movie, that are cutting, piercing and extracting. The scene above can be put in the second category.

I think these three actions are important because they show the metamorphosis of Nina. They refer to cutting her finger nails, piercing Beth’s face with a nail file and extracting a black feather from her shoulder, but stand for cutting her good/self-controlled side and her bad/wild side to take them apart, piercing her good self to extract her bad one.

Knives and blades are often used by female characters in horror movies, so it’s no wonder to find scissors and a nail file in Black Swan. In De Palma’s movie, for example, Carrie takes her terrible vengeance on her mother by stabbing her with a set of sharp tools, including knives.

In Argento’s movie, the serial killer is a woman, Marta, who stabbed her husband to death (this dramatic event is the premise of the movie).

In the narration, Lily has the role of Nina’s nemesis. The term, originally indicating the goddess of revenge, is related to the Greek word νέμειν (némein) meaning “to give what is due”. It often refers to one’s worst enemy, someone we hate but whom we share some similarities with; for this reason, in the movie the nemesis is turned into a double. Lily and Nina have some physical similarities [4] and this gives way to ambiguous situations: Nina thinks Lily is with her (in the sex scene, for example), but in reality she’s just projecting outside her own fears and desires.

Lily is what Nina can’t be, so it’s quite obvious the self-controlled and virginal ballerina feels attracted by her. In the nightclub where the girls spend a night, Nina accepts to take some drug, thus turning into a completely new person and loosing her wild side. Nina’s figure is reflected in a mirror, which – again – symbolizes the upcoming splitting in her personality.

Nina’s metamorphosis or, better, the black side (swan) taking over the white side (swan), is revealed through mirrors. The first black garment she wears is a tank top borrowed from Lily while they’re at the club: Nina wears it in front of a mirror and immediately there’s a different look in her eyes, as if she has borrowed part of Lily’s daring behaviour, too. The scene where the double  materializes and acts by itself includes a mirror, and the same can be said for the scene of the last screencap. The character’s metamorphosis is mental but dramatically physical, too, as we can see from the scary scene where Nina’s bones crack, her eyes are bloodshot and black feathers sprout in her shoulders.

Mirrors are not really recurring in Carrie, but they share the same function as in Black Swan. The movie can be considered a modern version of Cinderella: Carrie, a shy girl with telekinetic powers, is forced by her wicked mother (in the fairy tale the character was a stepmother) to live a secluded life, but a fairy godmother (Miss Collins, her gym teacher) intervenes to turn her, a duckling, into a beautiful swan for one night only, the night of the prom. Carrie temporarily escapes her outcast role by looking at her reflection on a mirror, thanks to Miss Collins, who shows her she is beautiful. She takes control of her life: she buys some make-up, makes her own prom dress, and acts like any other girl of her age, getting ready to have the time of her life at a school party. Things will turn tragic, but Carrie shortly lives her dream of being admired, not feared by her supernatural powers and not mocked for her physical appearance. As in Black Swan, Carrie comes in contact with her inner self through a mirror: what she sees reflected convinces her being beautiful is not a sin.

The movie has really intrigued me, especially for the obsessive presence of the theme of the double: I wrote my graduation thesis on this theme in two novels by Stephen King – The Shining and The Dark Half – so you may realize my excitement to see the mastery with which Aronofsky presented the same topic in a story ruled by paranoia, obsessions (control, lack of control, perfection), a magnificent soundtrack and dream-like costumes.

[1] What is reality and what is imagination? The twisted mind of the protagonist – the movie suggests – projects on the outside her inner desires, so the border between what is real and what is not is continually blurred.

[2] The symbology of colours is very important to define roles. At first, Nina always wears white and pink clothes (showing her virginal side), but she gradually replaces white with grey and eventually with black.

[3] Nina has opened up with Lily: she’s frustrated because her best is not enough for Thomas.

[4] In one of the opening scenes, Nina is in a subway train taking her to the theatre, when she notices a girl: she can’t see her face, but she stares because she reminds her of herself.

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15 comments

  1. Fantastic article! I’m a sucker for good film analysis and this is highly satisfying. The movie is not bad either. No, really, it’s haunting, I can’t wait to watch it again.

    1. You chose the correct adjective, “haunting”. It’s one of the few movies I’d like to see at least once again, because I think there’s so much I haven’t fully grasped yet.

      I’m glad you appreciated the article. It took me a while to do the screencaps of EACH scene which features a mirror, but I hope it was really worth it.

  2. Prima di tutto voglio ringraziarti per i tuoi post/articoli, il tuo impegno, per quello che scrivi e per come lo fai, in questo mare di blogger, (a volte inutili), per me, sei un appuntamento settimanale prezioso ed è sempre un piacere leggerti, sei competente e preparata, ma non solo, grazie a te riesco a cogliere sfumature e dettagli che, nel caso es. di Black Swan, mi erano sfuggiti. Avevo completamente rimosso certe similitudini con Profondo rosso. 
    Ieri sera ho visto il film e mi ha fortemente impressionato, ma non posso dire che non mi sia piaciuto, anzi! Di Aronosky ho visto solo The Wrestler, non sento di esagerare se dico che Il Cigno nero per me è il suo capolavoro. Il bianco, il nero, il bene, il male, la difficoltà ad integrarsi, il cordone ombelicale mai tagliato, la ricerca della perfezione, (con il tragico epilogo, segno forse, che questa perfezione non esiste), la ricerca, il lato oscuro che può celarsi in ognuno di noi è rappresentato inquietantemente bene in questo film. Poi, proprio con te, qualche tweet fa, dicevo quanto mi avesse impressionato la figura della madre in Carrie di Stephen King, pensavo non esistesse madre più malvagia di Margaret, invece Erica, sotto certi punti di vista è anche peggio. Peccato il regista non abbia approfondito questo rapporto madre/figlia. La Portman bravissima, quasi fastidiosa nel ruolo di Nina, (e per questo più apprezzata da me), merita l’Oscar!

    1. Secondo me, in un certo senso, Erica è una madre più “pericolosa” rispetto a Margaret. La seconda controlla “fisicamente” la vita della figlia, ma Carrie, dentro di se, cova un segreto insondabile (la telecinesi), che nessuno – nemmeno la furia fondamentalista della madre, può portarle via. Inoltre, compie, seppur faticosamente, un processo di affrancamento nei confronti della madre, appunto perchè non dipende da lei dal punto di vista psicologico.
      Erica, di contro, ha davvero un rapporto simbiotico con Nina. Nella figlia vede la possibilità di un riscatto personale (anche lei era ballerina, ma non è riuscita a diventare famosa), su di lei quindi proietta i propri desideri. Loro due sono legate sia fisicamente che psicologicamente, ed è questo che rende il legame ossessivo e inquietante. Penso che Aronofsky abbia presentato splendidamente la complessità e il lato “malato” di questo rapporto, alternando piccoli gesti quotidiani (il taglio delle unghie, ad esempio) a inaspettati scatti di nervi (la scena della torta).

      Anche io conosco poco la produzione del regista, ma voglio a tutti i costi recuperare uno dei suoi primi lavori, Requiem for a Dream, di cui ho sempre sentito molto parlare (quasi sempre in termini entusiastici).

      Concludo ringraziandoti molto per le tue parole di apprezzamento. A volte, soprattutto quando scrivo questi “mattoni”, mi dico che nessuno vuole leggere cose pesanti, ma commenti come il tuo mi fanno invece capire che da qualcuno (pochi, me ne rendo conto) vengono apprezzate. Grazie mille!

  3. Lavoro eccezionale Super!.
    Analisi veramente affascinante,e nuova per quanto mi riguarda,perchè totalmente incapace di vedere film come Profondo Rosso o Carrie,considerato il poco coraggio.
    Black swan invece,mi rimarrà dentro a lungo…così potente,perfetto in ogni sfumatura,con un’attrice così brava,da farti ricordare quanto è difficile il lavoro di attore e quanti siano pochi i veri grandi in circolazione.
    Riflettendo infine sulla diatriba costumista/sorelle Rodarte;certo le Mulleavy avranno anche disegnato due “tutù” solamente ma talmente meravigliosi che ci si dimentica quasi del resto dei costumi di scena opera del costumista ufficiale.
    Nina cigno nero con il rossetto rosso sbavato che fissa Thomas dopo averlo baciato? il momento del film che non dimenticherò.
    A.

    1. Sono d’accordo con te. Ormai, nel mondo dello spettacolo, tutti fanno tutto, ma solo pochissimi riescono davvero a lasciare il segno. Secondo il mio modesto parere, per la Portman il ruolo di Nina rappresenta un momento topico della sua carriera, al di là del fatto che le ha fatto guadagnare un Oscar. A me lei era piaciuta molto anche in V for Vendetta, ma qui si vede che è proprio diventata Nina, ha dato al personaggio una profondità e una complessità incredibili.

      Riguardo alla diatriba, mi pare un po’ sterile, per quanto abbia avuto dei risvolti seri (la mancata nomination agli Oscar, per dire). E’ chiaro che le sorelle Mulleavy hanno reso il film esteticamente unico, visto che i costumi più complessi sono opera loro, ma sono state poco accorte nel non contrattare il loro inserimento nei credits come costumiste e nel non iscriversi subito al Costume Designers Guild. Hanno purtroppo pagato cara questa ingenuità, ma questo non toglie niente alla loro bravura.

  4. Il tema del doppio nasce col teatro fin dalle sue origini in Grecia e a Roma, e viene sfruttato sia in chiave comica (con gli equivoci che può comportare) sia in chiave tragica e drammatica (bene vs male).
    Un post veramente interessantissimo, dall’inizio alla fine.
    Non vedo l’ora di vedere il film in inglese nelle prossime settimane!

  5. Excellent analysis, thank you very much for this. I loved the movie too it walked on the very thin line between reality and imagination.

    1. Thanks. I’m glad you’ve appreciated it.
      Exactly. The way in which the director showed us a journey along this thin line was impressive, in my opinion.

  6. 3 and a half years later and the movie finds new enthusiasts: a 6 member group of guys once a month watch a movie at home and then we watch it again together to discuss. I think it’s been 6 years going now and last night was Black Swan. Our dictum is to halt the movie whenever there is a comment or full discussion. It took us 5 full hours to track along through BS. I’d thought of Carrie last night Along with Marnie, Now Voyager and others) and today looked for articles to explore this comparison – I’m sorta too lazy to write it myself- and then ran across this terrific piece with the mirror examination.
    Great intriguing thinking, fun to read and thanks for the images that ran with the text. We guys last night came to a consensus that there is the Narrative and then there is all the other wild, barely graspable ‘ stuff’ which swirls around to make the viewer as unsteady and ungrounded as the protagonist. How’s this for phrase making: when people say the movie is over the top they could just as well say that it is also below the top and beside the top and behind the top, too; especially behind.
    Someone could do the same type look- see at the use of hair in BS as you did looking at the mirrors.. And the blacks and the whites and the blood and the pink precursers of the blood and the stairs and the elevations. Use of Mirrors are amongst the most prominent devises, also the limited color palette, and use of close ups. But there are so many directorial decisions of so many elements making up the mise en scene that one can only applaud such industriousness. And the miracle of sort is that this planning and patching comes to a life of its own and is haunting and moving, maybe even with compassion. Maybe. .

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