A Supernatural Spectacle: Film Style within the Prologue of Black Swan
by Derek M. Dubois
Abstract: [page 11] Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky is well-known for a dynamic film style that showcases characters who self-destruct in visceral, kinetic ways. His Black Swan (2010) concerns a talented but infantilized ballet dancer whose quest for perfection in her renowned company’s performance of Swan Lake leads her down a darkened path of self-mutilation. The film externalizes this threat through the introduction of supernatural elements—most specifically, through the emergence of the double. This essay argues that Aronofsky establishes his key themes and genre elements through the techniques of art cinema immediately within the film’s prologue.
Keywords: art cinema, the double/doppelgänger, film style, narrative
In 2010, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky unleashed Black Swan upon audiences hungry for a salacious, psychosexual horror film. Aronofsky, previously hailed for small but intense psychological portraits of ambitious characters in films such as Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), and The Fountain (2006), is known for a dynamic filmic style that has become the major hallmark of his work. Whether through greed, passion, addiction, or the quest for perfection, Aronofsky’s characters often self-destruct in visceral, kinetic ways illustrated—both literally and figuratively—through the various elements of film form. Black Swan fits well in this canon, as the film concerns a talented—but infantilized—ballet dancer whose quest for perfection in her renowned company’s performance of Swan Lake leads her down a darkened path of self-mutilation (both corporeal and disturbingly psychological). The screenplay externalizes this threat through the introduction of supernatural/fantastic elements—most specifically, through the emergence of the double. While Black Swan purports to [page 12] support a narrative fairly well-entrenched in the Classical Hollywood Narrative paradigm, the extravagance of its filmic style often borrows from art cinema’s techniques, especially during moments when supernatural elements arise. These techniques are established fully in the film’s prologue, which is where I shall locate my analysis of the film’s style and its relationship to the film’s larger implicit meaning.
Black Swan begins in darkness. Over a black screen, Tchaikovsky’s renowned Swan Lake takes flight on the film’s soundtrack. The mournful woodwinds set the timbre of the film as various white credits pop on and off the black screen in vertiginous scaling. Finally, the film’s title fades up while a whistling wind carries strange voices of snickering laughter above the music. This laughter (whether diegetic within the narrative’s world or added for spectatorial subjectivity) will again be heard by protagonist Nina Sayers several times as she further descends into madness. It is the first of many supernatural elements that will appear throughout the film. Already, this perversion of Swan Lake, specifically through the layered addition of ghostly voices, connotes the voyeurism of unseen spirits watching, while signifying that Aronofsky’s film will not simply be a modern re-telling of the classic fable. This introduction is only a jumping off point, and the film’s sound design instantly roots viewers in a place of fear and paranoia before a single image flickers on screen.
The voices disappear, and the opening image then fades in atmospherically. Viewers observe a darkened stage illuminated overhead from a spotlight in off-screen space. Already, the mise-en-scene is cryptic. There is no clear dimension to the space: no walls, no audience, just a black purgatory devoid of discernible features. A ballerina stands in long shot, illuminated brightly on one side (see Figure 1). The lighting bifurcates her down the middle into two sides: the white and the black. It is a startling opening image that will thematically underscore the entire dramatic premise of the film. Nina, the ballerina, dances in time to the music as the film cuts from the very long shot to a close-up of her feet as she performs the most intricate of balletic techniques. Her feet are mirrored in the sheen of the floor’s surface, further contributing to the mirroring and doubling motif. Wiser film-goers are surely conscious of cinema’s inherent trickery and probably want to [page 13] believe that a stunt dancer has been utilized for the close-up of her fancy footwork until, in an unbroken shot, the ballerina crouches in frame, revealing actress Natalie Portman’s face clearly for the first time. Although trickery (CGI facial replacement) was indeed utilized during this moment, the viewer is instantly engaged with the actress’ effortless transformation into a ballerina of bottomless talent (Singer). It is, in a word, sublime.
This shot is worth discussing further for its layering of techniques that build upon notions of the doppelganger and doubling. The announcement of the primary theme of the film in the opening image, both through the carving of the ballerina figure in two (one half light, the other dark) and through the ballerina’s reflection in the sheen of the floor’s surface, conjures the symbolic double in art and literature. As noted by Joshua Clover in an essay for the journal Film Quarterly, “doubling is a paradigmatic trope in cinema, at every stratum from the technical doubling of apparatus and human perception, to the doubling of the worlds that exist on each side of the screen” (7). Clover then goes on to note that Black Swan specifically chases the doubling theme “with Darren Aronofsky’s usual rage for excess: everything is doubled and doubled again” (7). It is true; Aronofsky as a filmmaker is known for an excess of style. I contend that the melodramatic narrative of his horror film—including the introduction of supernatural elements—warrants this intense, no-holds-barred approach. In a bout of poetic justice, the film will end with Nina dying from a severe laceration caused by the shards of a mirror.
In his detailed exploration of the evolution of the double/ doppelganger theme within the arts, scholar Gordon Slethaug [page 14] builds a robust literature review that traces the concept of the double from its earliest origins in various cultural folklores through its modern thematic utilization. Slethaug notes that in the earliest folkloric tradition, “one who meets a doppelganger, an apparition of oneself, faces imminent death . . . [, and] soul and body are conceived as separate entities joined in subtle and indiscernible ways . . . [, so] to suppress one or the other, is to destroy the essential self” (101). Here lies the groundwork for subsequent texts—especially in the horror genre—that utilize the theme richly, including, of course, Black Swan. Nina will first encounter her double in the diegesis of the narrative walking across a dimly lit bridge in the dark of night. Eventually, the introduction of the Lily character as a rival in the dance company—inhabited by actress Mila Kunis, who mirrors so much of Portman’s slender, attractive physicality—will externalize this threat until Nina’s self-destructive death at the narrative’s conclusion. The doubling theme emerges here in the prologue through the archetypal carving of Nina’s character into her light and dark selves.
Slethaug’s analysis adds that the impetus for psychological exploration through the arts led to the usage of the double throughout Gothic Victorian and Russian literature (such as Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Dostoevsky’s The Double, to name just two of myriad examples), and it was ultimately adopted as a symbolic principal of Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis and has continued through contemporary narratives that push the concept further than its folkloric origins. For instance, in post-modern artistic texts, the double theme is further “informed by narratology and post-structuralism” so that it expands beyond the well-trodden psychological view of the double as divided self and looks towards the structural considerations of the act of doubling and intertextuality (105). To explore this concept further in Black Swan would require positioning the filmic text as a whole against its Ur-text (the ballet Swan Lake, itself an adaptation of Musäus’ The Stolen Veil), but that is outside of the aims of this formal analysis of the film’s prologue.
Using elements of mise-en-scène (lighting, reflections, set design, etc.) to connote the theme of doubling has also been viewed critically by theorists seeking gendered readings of Black Swan’s symptomatic layers. Noting the way that the film employs the [page 15] technique as “another worn-out visual cliché [,]. . . multiple [reflections] often create a mise-en-abyme . . . immers[ing] us in a maze of feminine bodies and faces . . . [that] represents a construction of femininity that has no life outside the terms of the mirror/gaze of the male symbolic” (Fisher and Jacobs 60). Engaging further with this notion behooves reviewing the specific role of doubles in films centered on the doubling of female protagonists (far less commonplace than narratives featuring doubling of male characters). Film theorist Lucy Fischer has looked closely at female doubling in film, specifically, and found that the key difference between representations of doubling with male characters versus female characters directly relates to the employment of the male gaze, a concept at the very root of feminist film theory. Fischer finds that when female characters are filtered through the lens of the double, they are often split along similar binary lines, whereby the “polarity of good girl/bad girl, of virgin/whore, [holds] particular sway” and that the positive qualities associated with the good girl “(passivity, warmth, sweetness, masochism, modesty) are culturally defined as ‘feminine,’ while the negative traits… (intelligence, competitiveness, strength, sexual boldness) are decidedly not” (Fischer 32). Interpreting Fischer’s view—through the lens of feminist film theory—denotes the split duality of the female character as illusory. It is not “a real break in the psyche of women. Instead it is more aptly seen as a cleft in the male view of her” (34). The implications of this idea must be extrapolated two-fold. First, how do male characters in Black Swan view and engage with both halves of Nina Sayers and, second, how are male spectators meant to view the dual sides of her character?
Tackling the relationship between Nina and male characters within the film adheres to the notions of how the double has classically worked in relationship to female characters, as discussed by Fischer. Nina’s two halves are essentially the “good girl” ballet dancer, all sweetness and warmth, and the “bad girl” persona who begins to creep in, wreak havoc, and take over. “Good girl” Nina has no boyfriends and no clear sexual experience, a troublingly close relationship with her domineering mother (shades of Faye Dunaway’s Mommie Dearest character), and a pink bedroom littered [page 16] with childhood toys. When seen in moments of dance, the slenderness of her figure is emphasized, echoing a pre-adolescent female body. This is the Nina of the prologue, who will, as we shall see, become the object/plaything of the intruding, and decidedly male, monster in just a few moments. Additionally, beyond the prologue, her only significant male interaction within the narrative diegesis is with her ballet instructor (Cassel), who chides her for not possessing the requisite darkness (i.e. sexual experience) to appropriately inhabit the black swan character. The fact that his interactions with her cross over into full-fledged sexual assault also overtly literalizes the feminist film theory notion that her character exists for male pleasure. When Nina’s split occurs and the double takes over, she becomes much more sexually emboldened and violent (experimenting sexually with the Lily character, stabbing Wynona Ryder’s retired dancer, biting her instructor) and also becomes unhinged, losing her “femininity” along with her sanity. This is achieved through the gory aspects of body-horror that transform Nina’s “bad girl” body into a grotesque spectacle that erodes attraction. These traits, to return momentarily to Fisher and Jacobs’ critique of the worn-out visual cliché, demonstrate that Black Swan is less concerned in reflecting complexity of character through symbolic mirrored poles “of the female mind, but rather [presents] the dialectical fantasies of man” (Fischer 34). And to clarify, “fantasies of man” is in reference to the gaze possessed by the male spectator.
Returning now to the formal analysis of the film’s prologue, the initial shot has established Nina’s ballerina character through the very long framing on a very vast stage, and her figure’s diminutive size connects her imagistically to the prop—used later in the film—of the music box that plays a tune while a small ballerina figurine pirouettes. This consistent evocation of the ballerina’s technical superiority is underscored by her infantilization, which Fisher and Jacobs note is rooted in the character as “over-controlled and under-sexualized” (Fisher and Jacobs 58). As previously discussed, Nina’s “good girl” half eschews the traits that are deemed by the male instructor to be requisite for the part of the black swan. These introductory shots visually establish, through evocative staging and lighting, the default position of the prim and proper ballerina and will, in [page 17] subsequent shots to be discussed, mine the themes of transformation via the emergence of supernatural beings. Ultimately, when the “bad girl” persona takes over, the instructor will lose his control/ownership of Nina.
It is this theme of one’s self fracturing through doubling that leads Aronofsky to play with the supernatural. For much of the film, Nina believes there is an external threat out to jeopardize her self-actualization in the ballet world. In an analysis of postmodern horror cinema, scholar Isabel Cristina Pinedo summarizes the horror narrative trope as follows: “Such films usually open with the violent disruption of the normative order by a monster, which can take the form of a supernatural invader . . . [and] revolves around the monster’s graphically violent rampage and ordinary people’s ineffectual attempts to resist it . . . [ending with] the inefficacy of human action and the repudiation of narrative closure” (89). This supernatural invader emerges immediately in the prologue of Black Swan when the male dancer emerges and suddenly transforms before the viewer’s eyes into a domineering creature. His handling of Nina’s delicate frame—whipping her body back and forth across the stage, she unable to call for help—is a symbolic, if still graphically violent, rampage of sorts. After she holds her pose in statuesque tableau, with the viewer transfixed by Nina’s gorgeous face (which wears the smile of a young girl playing the part of a princess), Aronofsky cuts to the third—and final—shot of the opening sequence. Once again, we return to a long-shot, but now the camera is positioned behind Nina and clearly switches from static to handheld operation. Hand-held camerawork is a distinct visual style that calls attention to the filmmaker’s presence. Aronofsky embraced this vérité method of shooting on his previous film, The Wrestler (Davies). The consistent bounce and shake of the camera provides an intimacy, a raw realness that adheres to its documentary origins. The camera stalks towards Nina, who is seemingly unaware of its presence. Are we another character in the room? The anthropomorphizing of the operator’s movements of the camera brings this to mind. Still, as spectators are brought closer, a darkened figure emerges from the left side of the frame. This man approaches Nina slowly. As he does, she rises as if his approach has been inevitable all along, the man’s costume [page 18] adorned entirely in black feathers. He stands behind Nina with piercing dark eyes that never leave her.
The two never make eye contact. The music picks up in tempo. Nina rushes towards the camera lens, acknowledging it with panicked eyes that seem to scream “Help me!” This is a very interesting moment—borrowing from modes of art cinema—as classical narratives usually eschew any breaking of the fourth wall. Aronofsky has Nina pleading to the audience for some sort of mediation. However, the camera does not interject in their dance but instead begins to revolve around them as they flail in tightly choreographed movements. The man seems to chase Nina as the loudness of the score crescendos and the rhythm begins to creep faster and faster as viewers’ anxiety boils. Additional whispers pepper the soundtrack, further adding to the supernatural timbre until finally the camera loses Nina and focuses on the dark man as he twirls and transforms into a monstrous and demonic creature before our very eyes. The transformation itself is coupled with the sounds of blistering feathers, and the leitmotif of the score turns darker and more frenzied.
Horns and timpani add themselves on top of the score as the two figures finally make contact. The demonic black creature has his way with Nina, as if she’s a wounded gazelle to his lion. He flings her around the stage in jerky movements. Her arms consistently reach out for help that will never arrive. The camera maintains a relative distance, noting the ethics of the observer in documentary, but begins to arc in circles around the couple faster and faster. The dizzying camerawork, the erratic spinning choreography, the blasting musical score, and the lack of a clearly organized space work together to keep spectators from grounding themselves. The sequence is reminiscent of a car wreck, and when the two vehicles (the monster and the princess) collide, we flip and roll with them, unable to root ourselves until the dust finally settles.
Finally, as the music reaches its full crescendo and the monster spins Nina repeatedly, there is an enormous fluttering, and (again, in this completely unbroken shot) Nina herself transforms. Her head and parts of her dress are now adorned with white feathers. The transformation is so quick and violent that feathers scatter through the air, cascading around her. Here, the supernatural qualities propagate. Her movements evolve from [page 19] prey-like destruction to a more bird-like entity; her arms flap like wings. The monster leaves her, having accomplished his part of the ritual. Nina “learns to fly” and then brings her hands to her face in despair at the realization of what she’s become. The hot key-light from overhead disappears, leaving only a soft-fill rimming her figure. For the most part, she is enshrouded in darkness. The princess has been transformed into a swan, symbolically, and she floats off into the light as the scene fades to black, signaling the end of the prologue.
If the opening of a film is meant to signal the emotional and stylistic aspects of its text, it behooves us to explore how this prologue works to define the film’s genre. While Black Swan is dynamic enough to encompass elements of several genres, including melodrama, the psychological thriller, and the musical, it is the horror film that best summates the emotions evoked in viewers. As noted in An Introduction to Film Genres, the horror film’s “evocation of anxiety, fear, and revulsion is based on violating the logic by which reality is organized according to cultural and social systems of meaning . . . the supernatural experiences, the monsters, and the madmen in horror movies provoke fear and revulsion because they fail to confirm to [cultural and social] distinctions” (Friedman et. al 387). The prologue’s extended three-shot introduction deftly plays with spectatorial perception of reality from the outset. By introducing subjective uses of formal elements (the snickering on the soundtrack, the handheld camera work, the transformation of girl into beast), Aronofsky is deliberately seeking to evoke those very feelings of anxiety and dread by challenging our logic. There is no immediate orientation, but, rather, we are thrown off balance by the unique presentational style.
It is not, as previously noted, just the cross-pollination of genre that can be mined from this subversion of traditional formal elements but also the organization of Black Swan as pseudo-art film. If the definition of Classical Hollywood Cinema is to utilize all aspects of film form for the primary purpose of clear spectatorial understanding of narrative events, space, and time (though continuity editing tenets, establishing shots, match on action editing, clearly defined mise-en-scène, etc.), then art cinema is codified through choices that challenge this paradigm. Film scholar David [page 20] Bordwell has written much on film’s organizational techniques and discusses the language utilized by art cinema in his seminal essay “The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice.” In it, he notes, “Deviations from the classical canon—an unusual angle, a stressed bit of cutting, a prohibited camera movement, an unrealistic shift in lighting or setting—in short any breakdown of the motivation of cinematic space and time by cause-effect logic—can be read as ‘authorial commentary’” (98). Here, Bordwell is working to establish the notion that art cinema has two guiding principles: that of realism and that of authorial expressivity. Note that in his definition of realism he is not contending that art cinema cannot present the grotesque or the supernatural, as is on display in Black Swan. Rather, characters should be psychologically complex and not purely pawns progressing through a linked cause-and-effect. Additionally, and more to the point of the quotation above, it is the authorial expressivity that drives the cinema of Darren Aronofsky. In the prologue of Black Swan—and then subsequently throughout the film as a whole—Aronofsky will continually seek out methods that deliberately challenge Classical conventions.
Interestingly, since cinema’s inception, it has been common practice to merge the horror genre and the art film. From Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932) and through the extensive work of Murnau and the German Expressionists during the silent era, extravagance in style to synthesize a symbolic and a subjective point-of-view permitted a very natural comingling between the two modes. The “antirealist, antinaturalist style, emphasizing dark, chiaroscuro lighting, sharply angled set designs, and character types such as monsters and madmen, furnished natural ingredients” (Friedman et. al 371). Figure 2 is a moment taken from the third of the three shots from which the prologue is built.
[page 21] The composition is the very hallmark of the horror film whereby the monster, emerging unseen from the darkness, stalks the vulnerable Nina. Combined with the unique art cinema signifiers, it in practice makes for an exciting and surreal journey into the wounded psyche of Nina Sayers.
Though there is no clear indication from the prologue itself, viewers will soon learn that the dizzying opening dance just witnessed was in fact a dream that Nina Sayers had in the night. The next sequence will open with a shot of Nina awakening in bed, connecting the two moments linearly in time. While the nightmare-fake-out is a well-trodden trope in horror cinema, it works here to effectively alert viewers that from one moment to the next, they are to remain uncertain about whether Aronofsky is presenting objective fact or subjective fiction. That said, it is not as if Aronofsky limits his style of excess to dream-sequences; instead, this style will begin to seep through sequences of the narrative with more and more significance as the narrative charges forward and spectators question Nina’s grasp on reality.
The prologue announces the film brilliantly for several reasons. The first is that it instantly connects the film Black Swan thematically and narratively with the ballet Swan Lake. This decision forces us to view Black Swan through the symbols, motifs, and conflicts contained within the source material (Macaulay). Black Swan will be about Nina Sayers embarking on a journey of connecting with a more transgressive persona in order to properly embody both the white swan (which she begins the film as) and the more difficult black swan that she cannot become without transformation. This journey will require not only that Nina embrace criminality (stealing from the prestigious dance company’s former lead), sexuality (with both herself in masturbation and the darker doppelganger Lily), but also that Nina destroy herself in the process.
Throughout the film, Aronofsky’s choices play on spectator expectations established in Black Swan from the very first frame. Black Swan’s prologue consists of 3 shots lasting a total two minutes and ten seconds. Therefore, the sequence has an average shot length of 43 seconds. This detail bolsters the notion that [page 22] Aronofsky is interested primarily in unique and challenging modes of presentation. David Bordwell has noted the average shot length in contemporary cinema is approximately 4-to-6 seconds (The Way Hollywood Tells It 121). In this prologue, Aronofsky has continually defied Classical expectations and subverted traditional filmic organization with the intent of provoking fear through the emergence of the supernatural. Symptomatically, the film engages in the expansive trope of doubles while still provoking problematic readings through feminist film theory criticism. However, to perform a rigorous review of how these deeper layers and themes emerge through three well-constructed shots that function as a filmic prologue reveals its mastery. Through manipulations of all of the elements of film form, Aronofsky prepares viewers immediately to doubt what they see, to embrace the dreamlike sway of the visual, to suspend disbelief. Black Swan may be anything but subtle, and in its deliberate and heightened presentational style, Aronofsky bewitches the viewer in a hallucinatory ride of madness and the supernatural.
Aronofsky, Darren, director. Black Swan. Fox Searchlight, 2010.
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---. The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies. U of California P, 2006.
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Macaulay, Alastair. “One Classic Ballet, Many Interpretations.” The New York Times, 4 July 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/05/arts/dance/swan-lake-one-classic-ballet-many-interpretations.html.
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MLA citation (print):
Dubois, Derek M. "A Supernatural Spectacle: Film Style within the Prologue of Black Swan." Supernatural Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 2017, pp. 11-23.