The plot of the film is built around a theater ballerina who is fighting for the lead role in Swan Lake. However, the swans are not what they seem: with the second layer, the director takes the picture into completely different sub-themes and emotions. The poster with the split face of Natalie Portman also hints at the depth of meanings.
Darren Aronofsky is not the main master of Hollywood, but with this picture the director showed how he can work with subtexts, light and techniques in the frame, influencing the emotional perception of the picture by the viewer. It is about them that we will talk.
This is another text of a permanent column in which I analyze the work with color, light and framing in cinema. The previous one can be read here.
For those who care: there may be spoilers in the text
“Black Swan” should be added to the textbook on color in cinema — this film is a vivid example of how picture / color / light / angles affect the viewer’s perception, as well as the disclosure of the topic. It would seem that the film is about the rivalry of ballerinas for the main role in the production. Well, rivalry and rivalry is pretty common in teen rom-coms. However, Aronofsky really masterfully works out the details of the picture, so that it appears in a completely different light and color. And from the very first frame.
Ballet should evoke bright, spectacular associations, spotlights and colorful costumes before your eyes. But the “Black Swan” opens with a twilight beam of light, snatching out the lonely silhouette of a ballerina in pitch darkness.
First of all, blue is about loneliness. This color frames the life of the main character: her mother does not understand, she has to fight for the role, she is a loner in the ballet troupe, there is no one to support her.
Secondly, the blue color and all its shades are cold, lack of warmth, brightness and positive emotions. The film is shot almost entirely in gloomy cold shades.
It is even more curious when the silent coldness of colors progresses into green hues. The latter in the film is also sufficient. This is an exceptional color scheme, of a completely different kind. Green is rarely seen in the director’s main color palette.
For example, several Harry Potter films are tinted in green shades, there it evokes a direct association with Slytherin, the dark arts, potions, etc. Green in The Matrix helps to distinguish reality from unreality, while in Amelie it conveys fabulousness and balances the red in the frame.
In the case of the Black Swan, there are no magic potions, no matrix, no fabulous Paris: the green colors in the frame are almost like poison, they evoke a feeling of danger, fear, anxiety. This is no longer blue, which, although cold, can be a companion of silent melancholy, the green color only intensifies the emotional background.
To counterbalance these melancholic tones, the director resorts to the already proven scheme of yellow + blue / green. In different scenes, you can notice the light sources that tint part of the frame in warm colors. And they are also painted in a special way.
We cannot know for sure whether this was part of Aronofsky’s intertextuality or whether these meanings were invented. However, pay attention to the overall logic: warm lights appear in the frame, balancing the overall cold mood, like “rays of light in a dark realm”, but not vice versa. It is important.
We go down one more layer of the Black Swan: colors continue to play an important role. What associations should the color pink evoke? Lightness, innocence, softness, maybe even childish naivety surrounded by Barbie dolls.
In addition, pink also lies opposite green in Itten’s color wheel. The director introduces this color very carefully, with only separate elements, clothes. Remarkably, almost always on the main character. The one in the cold, poisonous realm of loneliness, rivalry and struggle. In this cold, she is emphatically innocent and soft. Remember this moment, it will still play its role.
The finale of the picture is the production of Swan Lake, for which the characters are preparing and rehearsing throughout the film. Darren Aronofsky didn’t show “some ending”, with a heroine who “won” and became the main ballerina of the production, after all the twists and turns of fate and rivalry. This is not just the path of the “Hero with a Thousand Faces”.
“Black Swan”, like Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”, with the inversion of the plot, operates towards deeper human values. What we see: just before the final, colors intensify. But again in the frame it is a deadly green, and complements it with blood red. Then the final step of the actress takes place, and she falls in a pirouette on the prepared pillows.
After landing Portman, the picture of the film becomes unrecognizable: it is bright, warm, all colored with light. Something we haven’t seen in any other scene throughout the movie.
The final scene is a kind of act of rebirth, the resurrection of the character. Not only the one who defeated inner demons and evil fate, but also as a person.
Green was really deadly, and red was bloody — Beth, in dark hallucinations, pierced herself with a shard of a mirror. Only this is left behind, in the past the role of the character. Despite the wound, everything is illuminated with light, as if it is a new, bestowed life. A thousand-year-old, perhaps the main cultural plot, sewn into the frame of a film about a classical ballet production.
This is where the pink, “innocent” color of Beth’s clothing elements came in handy. She was in this cold story, hardships fell on her fate in the film, but she was not part of this darkness. The latter, in a sense, won, crucified her (episode with a shard of a mirror). But now we see her again, all in the same scenery, the same costume, in the same world. However, there is light and warmth around.
Let’s rewind a little to see other options that the author used in working with such a multi-level design.
Beth, the heroine of Natalie Portman, who has dragged herself into this dark cauldron with a green potion, is going through a crisis. As if in a cold delirium, she sees things that are not there, she has clouding and point episodes of a split personality. That same “dark kingdom” presses on her.
The director works out the film in detail so that the viewers read this state as a subtext. So in the “Black Swan” appears the leitmotif of mirrors. The element itself is more like a horror movie than a picture about a ballet. The mirror creates a visual copy of any person, and in this case it also works as a lifesaver.
In the mirror, the heroine sees deep cuts on her skin, as if from the claws of a swan, on the mirror in the toilet she reads a rude inscription addressed to her, in the mirror she sees another she, living her own life. Mirrors, mirrors, mirrors.
It is worth noting the scenes filmed in the ballet dressing room. The room is full of mirrors of different sizes and shapes: where is reality, where is the real hero, and where is the reflection? This is an amazing find by Aronofsky, which will not be so easy to implement as a stylistic device for photography. However, if you succeed, then how is the game with reflections not a rival to the game of multi-colored light that is popular today?
Separately, it is worth taking a look at the scene in Beth’s house, where they, together with their mother, are sitting in a room behind her ballet costume. The characters are on opposite sides of the screen, completely at the edges. They are far from each other. Even their reflections in the mirror show the duality of the situation: the heroines in the same room are reflected opposite each other, but they are no longer close, the mirror is false.
In such a dramatic film, it was impossible to avoid large portraits that would only enhance the emotions of the characters, which the director, of course, does. The face-lit scheme isn’t new, it’s already been used in Spielberg’s The Terminal, Nolan’s Inception, and Anderson’s The French Herald. She is still definitely worth taking into the piggy bank of strong stylistic tricks for future shoots.
It is worth stopping at just one inconspicuous, but curious detail of this technique in the Black Swan. Pay attention to the footage from the rehearsal, where the heroes of Vincent Cassel and Portman are surrounded by empty chairs. The color of all elements of the scene is black! Even though it was filmed in color.
Playing with paints that only emphasize the natural skin color of the character in front of the camera and make it even more accentuated. Get armed! Contrasting portraits in a black location with sufficient lighting, and at the same time without monochrome.
And another find of this film in working with the frame is the elaboration of plans. This technique is not new, this is not the author’s discovery of Darren Aronofsky, but its competent implementation. In scenes with a rehearsal room, a man at the piano appears in the foreground, then hands with a bow and violin. Thus, the spacious empty space of the rehearsal space plays with a new sense of volume, and the frame becomes stronger.
This technique should, firstly, be taken into account for portrait photography, allowing the presence of the detail / character nearby to fall into the frame. And, secondly, for street shooting, where the folded puzzle of accidents can become even more confident if they go to the entire depth of the frame and are on different planes.