Updated June 10
There is a moment when someone shares a story that they mesh with the character they are describing. Their words become the character’s words, and the subject and speaker become one. Something similar happens when an actor is cast in a well-known production, where the characters, dialogue, and costuming are already established in the cultural consciousness. In cases like this, the actor becomes almost possessed by the character they are playing. Not only are they involved with the legacy of that recognizable character, but they repeat the actions of hundreds of other actors. The stage becomes a site of trauma, a sort of haunted space where the same story is told repeatedly but through different bodies.
This transaction is perhaps most extreme in ballet, as each dancer across generations performs the same choreography, or is at least heavily involved with the original production. The film Black Swan focuses on the consequences of becoming a role, and essentially splitting your personality. After Nina is cast as both the White and Black Swan in a production of Swan Lake, her identity becomes more violent and divisive. Eventually, she splits into two personalities: the good White Swan and the passionate Black Swan. Yet these personalities are not what drives her mad. She is driven mad by her performance versus the expectation of that performance, specifically how it compares to other dancers. The film is thus interested in what it means to become possessed by a role and to live for that role or character, rather than living for yourself. It likewise suggests that although the Black and White Swan contrast one another, there is an uncomfortable overlap between the two, especially as they inhabit the same body in Black Swan. The good versus evil dynamic they embody is thus far more troublesome, as together, they destroy Nina’s life, rather than just the Black Swan.
What I find truly interesting about this film is the way it emphasizes the curatorial role of storytelling, specifically older stories. It seems strange to me that different actors play out the same events and dialogue as other people have for decades. Unlike film, which has just one production and maybe a remake, the stage offers a more complex relationship between character and actor. The actor becomes just a body, a vessel for the character to use and play out the same situations again and again. Consider a production like Phantom of the Opera, a musical which has been playing nonstop for decades, always with the same music, costumes, and set. Although the actors change, the performance and characters go on. It is like a haunted house, which explains why this phenomenon works so well in a horror film like Black Swan.
I want to focus on the film’s opening scene, where Nina dreams about the first sequence in Swan Lake. The film opens with Tchaikovsky’s iconic score, which already informs the audience of what to expect about the film. Music tells as much of a story as dialogue, particularly in ballets, which are silent other than the score. It creates an environment and becomes an extension of the character’s emotional state. Keep in mind, it’s difficult to make out small details on stage, because often the audience is sitting either too high or too far to actually see a dancer’s face . The dance is important, and the dancer’s skill, but the dancer themselves is rarely the focus, because they are out of focus to the audience. Their movement and the score are most readable way to convey emotion. We hear the song develop during this scene, essentially transforming alongside its subject, from lovely and soft to harsh screaming. Its shrill tones become another antagonist in the scene, as they attack the listener and characters. As such, the score creates a violate binary between soft and harsh, and thus introduces the viewer to the world of Swan Lake and Black Swan.
One way the scene emphasizes character versus actor is through shot composition. We first see an empty black space, with no background or dimension. Slowly, an angled spotlight appears and hits a shadowy ballerina, whose face we cannot see. She leans one delicate arm towards the light, as though reaching for it. We can tell she is a ballerina from her dress and shoes, but we cannot tell who she is or what her face looks like, as the spotlight just hits her chest and overall frame. We get the general outline of the character, one which lacks any defining features or identity. This is indicative of the way the actor becomes the character, as the character takes priority over the actor.
The film then moves to a shot of the ballerina’s feet as she dances. This shot suggests that her feet and movement are what defines the characters, more so than her face or expression. The feet are what emote, and choreography is what creates the character. The dancer is just a way to show that choreography, as each movement belongs to the character they are playing. The camera follows the feet and never moves upward. We do see a reflection on the sleek black floor, but only of a shadow mimicking the movements of the ballerina, perhaps foreshadowing the White versus Black Swan dynamic. It is only after this solo that we finally meet Nina. She lowers into the frame, essentially collapsing into the role.
When the Sorcerer begins to stalk Nina, or Odette, the camera work suddenly changes. It begins to shake, as though handheld, and starts to lunge at Nina, circling just like the Sorcerer. There is no way for Nina nor Odette to escape, as they are physically held by the Sorcerer, but also blocked by the camera. There is also no entrance or exit in this void environment, which makes the space even more confusing and claustrophobic.
I chose this scene because it highlights multiple transformations. On one level, we see the rise of the White Swan, the pinnacle transformation in Swan Lake. But we also see Nina transform into the role, just like the actor playing the Sorcerer, or Rothbart. When Rothbart enters the scene, he is just an actor wearing stage makeup. There is nothing particularly threatening or otherworldly about him. It is only when he grabs Nina/Odette that he becomes a demonic creature, the actual character in Swan Lake. This suggests that although Nina looks human, and is not a swan, she has changed. This is why the movie begins with this dream sequence. It is the moment where Nina is cast by her character, it is her possession scene. Long before she is officially cast by the production, the character has already chosen her. While Nina’s transformation is more inconspicuous than the Sorcerer’s, it is just as encompassing. Now that said, you could also read this sequence through Nina’s desperation to become the White Swan, as shortly after, when she hears that the company will be performing Swan Lake, she assumes that this dream was prophetic and that she is destined to play the role. It’s left ambiguous whether this is true, as you could read the film as either Nina being possessed or Nina possessing whatever she can to own this role. I think both readings are necessary, as Nina is driven by this overwhelming character and the need to be perfect, which she achieves by the end of the film. I don’t believe that the film agrees with Nina’s logic, I think it asks us to be critical of the union between pain and talent, to ask if all of this was necessary to play the role, as like the word suggests, you are ‘playing’, and no one other Nina takes this responsibility as serious. It’s not as though at the end of the film, everyone understands that Nina did what she had to. There is no nodding and applause once they see what Nina has done to herself. Everyone is shocked and terrified by two realizations. First, they realize that Nina somehow performed a complex routine to perfection all with a shard of glass in her abdomen. Second, they realize that they were oblivious and complicit to the pressure on Nina, although she created much of that herself. This begs the question: will the company continue this cycle of abuse after the Nina incident?
The role arrives with so much baggage, not just the split Nina contends with, but also where it eventually leads, becoming someone like the retired Beth, forced to contend with insane expectations, downfall, and abuse. I think it’s noteworthy that Swan Lake ends with Odette and Siegfried’s suicides, after she realizes that the Black Swan has successfully deceived her true love, but notable still, in Black Swan, neither Rothbart nor Siegfried stop her, let alone join. She is alone in this version, but with Nina’s final words, and then fading to white, versus the fade into black that the film opens with, she is finally done with the role. If we are reading the film as a possession movie, then this final breath and collapse onto the mattress backstage would be an exorcism, except for one detail.
Nina’s final words, and the last in the film, are “I was perfect”, suggesting that she is the character, that every move and pose belongs to her, making her the character, not Nina. There is plenty of speculation about the end of the film, whether Nina survives or not, and I don’t think she does. I think this final line and fade to white implies that Nina is dead, simply because the role is finished and she is no longer Nina, no longer divided between self and character, Black Swan and White, and she can no longer exist beyond the confines of the performance. We meet Nina when she is cast, either by the character or herself, and then we depart as this role ends, there is nothing beyond it. Nina cannot exist anymore simply because her whole life was building to this role, and there is no existence outside of it. That could suggest that this cycle of abuse ends with Nina, because she has taken the role with her, and now the character is firmly rooted in her dying body, versus the next eager ballerina. In Swan Lake, Odette’s suicide frees the other Swan Maidens, allowing them to transform back into humans, which kills Rothbart, who is the strict and abusive Thomas in the film. Given that ending, perhaps Black Swan ends with the death of this perfect syndrome, and Thomas is placed under some investigation for his longstanding sexual abuse at the company. Or perhaps it continues, I think both readings are possible.
Black Swan uses this possession motif to pose two big questions. First, by becoming a character, what sort of forces do you welcome into your life? Second, by prioritizing someone else’s identity, and spending time developing and exploring that character, where do you stop, and the character begin? It leaves each of these questions ambiguous, allowing the audience to decide if this was all in Nina’s mind, or if there was a degree of horror influencing her. Regardless, with an ending that is somehow both brutal and delicate- lying on a mattress with classical music and applause as you bleed to death – the film suggests that something has been overcome. It’s left unclear whether that’s abuse, perfection, the role(s), Nina, or some dramatic combination. The music swells just as the blood around Nina’s wound swells, finally revealing itself over her pristine white dress. Whatever barriers, physical or mental, are gone and all that remains is this fleeting audience, not even seen in these final moments, just heard over Nina’s ultimate curtain call.