When Real Meets Reel: Perspective in Black Swan
2 January 2011
Darren Aronofsky redefines the term “unreliable narrator” in Black Sawn. Instead of some omniscient, stylized capturing of a plot, the camera in Black Swan aligns itself with its protagonist, Nina, and documents her final mental breakdown, from her perspective. Clearly, Nina suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, or something similar. Her unspecified mental condition obstructs her, and by extension the audience, from seeing reality as most interpret it. Therefore, her perception/the audience’s perception of herself, her mother, her co-workers, strangers, Swan Lake, and her environment is completely distorted.
Nina is in every scene of Black Swan. Although the camera is not always on her, she is always present. Since there are several other major characters in the film, this detail is easy to overlook. However, when focusing on how the camera’s aligns with Nina’s perspective, it is a necessary point to make. Nothing can happen in Black Swan that Nina is not present for; this film is her life, as she experiences it. Black Swan is the way a person suffering with severe mental instability sees and understands reality.
Yet, there is one scene in Black Swan that appears out-of-place; a scene that seems unlike the rest, and in opposition to the alignment between Nina and the camera. Not far into the film, Nina auditions in the principle’s studio for her dream role, Swan Queen. Unfortunately, the audition does not go smoothly, and her body language when exiting reveals her frustration. After she leaves the studio, the camera cuts to a shot of a bathroom. In the bathroom there is a stall and under the stall’s partition the audience sees Nina’s feet and hears the sound of her vomiting. The camera is not in the stall; the audience only sees Nina’s feet from afar.
This scene is very brief, yet problematic for the film. This is the only scene in the film where the audience separates from Nina, both physically and mentally. Physically, the stall’s partition separates her from the audience. And, due to that physical separation, the audience is not experiencing the moment the same way Nina is, which disturbs the aforementioned alignment. The audience has no choice but to view the scene as an outsider looking in.
Likely, Nina does not see herself as bulimic, or connects stress (in this case about her audition) and her self-destructive behavior; yet, in this brief scene, those are judgments imposed upon the audience through the camera’s position.
Had the camera followed an emotionally shaken Nina into the bathroom’s stall and captured her vomit the alignment between Nina and the audience would remain. Similar to other scenes of Nina vomiting, the audience would see through Nina’s perspective, which justifies her vomiting; in other situations Nina is frightened, nervous, and upset when she gets sick. Because this particular scene in the bathroom was not filmed that way, the camera attests Nina bullemia.
The problem with this scene is the instability it causes. Although it might sound strange, the camera’s alignment with Nina represents stability. Although nothing the audience sees is trustworthy, the audience can trust everything they see as Nina’s distorted perspective. Breaking that alignment suggests there are moments hidden in Black Swan when the camera is omniscient. Unfortunately, if that’s true, there is no way for the audience to gauge when those moments are, which creates confusion and undercuts the intelligent, experimental filmmaking.