Schizophrenic affect: Black Swan



A few minutes in to Black Swan, I remembered that I did not like Requiem For A Dream (2000), director Darren Aronofsky’s earlier film. This was a terrible thing to remember when the opening scene of the film had the same disconnected, irrational and unpleasant editing cuts. The immaculate graphic composition of the poster gave the impression that the film was going to have a similarly measured, beautiful, hyperreal finish. Yet this editing technique and the imperfect feel of the camerawork is precisely what made this Black Swan so successful in communicating its theme.

A clear paranoid schizophrenic, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is losing her grip on reality as she loses herself in the part of the Swan Lake’s Swan Queen. To feel the full impact of Nina’s schizophrenia it is important that the spectator is at a loss to rationalise it, or feel righteously superior to her, and this handheld, disconnected point-of-view camerawork creates a similar cine-state-of-mind. The sensory and psychic modalities through which the spectator experiences Nina’s outer world and her inner reality, merge our perception into her subjectivity, which is, in fact, broken. And importantly, Black Swan is not only about the destructive nature of ballet, both physical and mental, or the danger of self-harm (eg. recreational drug use), but of all sorts of external factors erupting in the face of dynamic incompatibility.

At the end, when Nina (we assume) has figured herself out, the photography becomes highly stylised as she dances the part of the Black Swan. But there is no real moment of revelation, no “aha” moment where it all makes sense for the spectator, like in another musing on memory and perception, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004). Or in another film that featured an incredibly affective score from Clint Mansell, Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009). Set on the moon, removed from the worldly and socially necessary construct of time, Moon provides the perfect setting for loss of reality in the self and the confusion of memory and subconscious thought. The film carries the spectator in a strange dreamlike state, and it is through Mansell’s haunting but strangely comforting score that the spectator can ultimately piece the dream together as a whole. Black Swan, on the other hand, with Mansell’s fractured Tchaikovsky, is experienced like an actual dream; incomplete, irrational, chaotic. Nina realises that she is psychotic (which doesn’t really happen in cases of schizophrenia) and that while she becomes perfect for a moment, she will never be cured. There is no resolution, only extended psychosis. If Nina’s revelatory moment was, for example, dramatised with a more conventional stylistic finale, the frenetic horror built in the previous 100 minutes would have evaporated.


Would Black Swan have been better without Aronofsky’s brazen kineticism? For the first while of its running time, I thought so. I wanted to see something dazzlingly stylized, presented with as much grand flair as Powell and Pressburger, those inimitable masters of the spectacular, brought to The Red Shoes (1948). Yet if this were the case, much of the film’s spine-tingling affective quality would have been numbed by heightened spectacle. Instead, Aronofsky gives us unwelcome goose bumps like those surrounding Nina’s swanlike wing wound. In a film about dance, perfection, seduction and flow, not to mention discordant schizophrenic realities, affect is the most important quality. So some of the most corporeal moments in the film – peeling off skin from the fingernail, scratching oneself, pulling a feather out of a wound, cracking bones in the foot – are observed with such attention sensorial affect on the body that the audience cannot help to sense this damage to themselves. This is an important element, given that the world of ballet and performance is a foreign and inaccessible realm to most of us. (Even though it almost seems familiar because representations of that world thrive with clichés – which do, let’s not forget, have to come from somewhere – it really is an unknown.) When Nina is dancing in her bedroom and gets lost in pirouettes, her breaking her toe is inevitable. We know it will come, and the fear of the coming event makes itself known in our body through our corporeal awareness of Nina’s body. Such a breakage could happen to anyone, not just a schizophrenic body, and that particular physical modality in Black Swan leads to the psychic.

The mirror - so useful to the cinema!

Black Swan is clearly a highly dramatised observation of a schizophrenic personality. But its sensational treatment is understandable. Nina’s paranoia would not be out of place in any ballet school – like Thomas (Vincent Cassell) says, “Every dancer in the world wants your role” – but it is even more understandable as a form of schizophrenic thought, or knight’s move thinking, especially when she starts to see people and things that aren’t there. When this is revealed to the spectator at its most intense – when Nina imagines seeing Lily (Mila Kunis) in her dressing room and kills her – it seems that schizophrenia takes a backseat to dramatic license, and the basis for Nina’s psychosis is expanded into an unrealistic delusion. Or maybe not? Perhaps Nina does not kill herself after all. It may, like so many other of Nina’s imaginings represented via the camera, be a delusion based on the affect of such a dramatic performance. This fractured narrative becomes strangely coherent when threaded through the schizophrenic mode.

But it cannot only be judged via this external element, this pre-classified psychic rationale. As mentioned the sensorial aspects, the corporeal vectors, the musical score and the soundtrack based on heightened diegetic awareness make this film what it is. Where I was turned off Requiem For A Dream, those same aspects drew me into Black Swan. While my good friend Julz over here says that this affective pull made took away from the psychological aspect and made it a bit too gruesome, to me it actually added another meaningful dimension to the film. Rather than limiting the film’s content to ballet and psychosis (like Requiem did with drug abuse – I think), Aronofsky has created another vector into the film body. Is there a neat ending? Whether she died or not, I might easily comment that striving for perfection is damaging to physical and mental health and we should only try to do our best, not reach for someone else’s ideals. But why would I? I think the whole point of a film like this, particularly with the sensorial affect being so blatant, is about the cinematic spectator experience. And Aronofsky sure made Black Swan an experience.


About cinemelo

I love to write about film and comment on culture. Hopefully providing insight and interesting thoughts for fellow cultural itinerants.
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One Response to Schizophrenic affect: Black Swan

  1. jtul. says:

    Hey man, loved this. Actually I agree with you completely – Aronofsky’s ability to include the audience in Nina’s paranoia was exceptionally effective, and I really like your comment, “Aronofsky has created another vector into the film body. Is there a neat ending?” Great words, and I think an very important part of the film. Perhaps my problem with this was I felt that both schizophrenia and ballet were exploited to cinematic ends. I would like to think that such exploitation adds to his comment on the nature of cinema…but even if it did, Not sure how I feel about mental illness being used “blatant[ly]” for sensorial affect.
    Still – that doesn’t mean I can fault him on his film-making abilities!

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