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Issue 8

A Monochromatic Tug of War: A semiotic analysis of black and white in Black Swan

Nidhi Munot

Black Swan is regarded as a cinematic masterpiece for its depiction of the obsessed artist. A closer look, however, reveals the utilization of color to add to its storytelling. How did color theory contribute to the cinematography of Black Swan—and what does it convey about its power in film?

The use of colour in film allows for multilayered cinematic representation, beyond what is shown at face value on the screen. We associate emotions with every colour—for example, pink is used to convey femininity, yellow for warmth, green for growth or nature, red for danger, passion or violence; the list goes on. We also encounter binary oppositions extensively in the arena of film and literature—in tropes of good versus evil, black versus white, young versus old and more. I will be looking into the use of colour in cinema in alignment with binary opposition. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique uses black and white to convey this opposition in Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film Black Swan. The film is about duality, both allegorically through its premise in Swan Lake, and literally through the protagonist’s breakdown. Libatique makes use of costume and set design to portray this duality through the colours black and white.

On the surface, the story is about Nina Sayers, played by Natalie Portman, who is a ballerina at a company that is planning to put up a showcase of Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Swan Lake. The story of the ballet is as follows: Princess Odette has a spell cast on her that makes her a white swan, which can only be broken by true love. She falls in love with a prince, but before the spell can be broken, her evil sister, the black swan, swoops in and seduces him. The white swan, devastated, kills herself and finds her freedom in death. As the film progresses, we see that Nina’s life in some way starts to mirror the story of Swan Lake. After being cast as the Swan Queen for the ballet, the film traverses her internal conflict in trying to embody both the white and black swan for the sake of her art. She is threatened by Lily, another dancer in the company, who fully epitomizes the turbulence of the black swan. As the film progresses, her internal struggle, drive for perfection and threat of replacement triggers Nina’s descent into madness, which takes the form of her “doubles”. As her madness peaks, there is a conflation of Nina’s alter ego with Lily, which shows that in Nina’s mind, Lily is the black swan that she herself is trying to become. 

The story is premised on the dynamic between the innocent white swan and her dark and seductive counterpart, which is conveyed effectively through the pervasive monochromatic tug of war throughout the film. White is a colour that generally connotes purity, goodness and innocence. Black, being its binary opposite, comes to symbolize sin, rebellion and evil. The binary that the narrative creates between Nina and Lily is translated on screen, using costume, through the binary that already exists between black and white—Nina is consistently shown wearing white clothes at the beginning of the film, whereas Lily is shown chiefly in black. The instructor, Tomas’ demand for the balance between artistic perfection and daring passion is indicated through costume as well; he is always shown wearing either grey or both black and white. 

The costume changes for Portman throughout the film trace Nina’s journey of maturation as it starts to take the form of her madness. As she starts to give in to her darker impulses, the transition is shown through her wearing grey, symbolizing that she is arriving at a middle ground between the white and the black in her life. Her defining act of rebellion—going out to the club with Lily—sets in motion the big change. The scene at the club in which she pulls over a black top over her white top illustrates her conscious decision to suppress the brand of her innocence to unleash her more reckless urges. In the events that follow, Nina experiences true sexual liberation for the first time, which finally allows her to surrender her old self and embody the black swan. This shift is conveyed through a switch to black costume for Portman in every scene from that point on.

In the days leading up to the final show, Nina’s madness crescendos and her hallucinations take the form of her literally turning into a black swan. She starts to pull out black feathers from her body, symbolising her internalization of the black swan. In the penultimate scenes of the film, in Nina’s performance as the Swan Queen, her struggle to play the part of the white swan convincingly shows that she has finally let go of her childlike inhibitions. The dressing room scene following the first act shows the climax of Nina’s deliration. Her violent physical altercation with Lily has sudden camera switches where we see her fight—not Lily, but herself. The juxtaposition of black and white in this scene shows the last scuffle between Nina’s alter egos in order for her to finally embody the black swan. The scene ends with her stabbing her counterpart, followed by an artistically perfect performance as the black swan. These scenes hold immense connotative value; her literal transformation into the black swan while dancing represents the act of her casting away the last shred of childlike innocence and inhibition in order to let the darkness take over. The act of stabbing Lily—or so she thinks, we later find out that she was hallucinating and actually stabbed herself—symbolizes the need for Nina to kill that part of herself in order to embody a darker persona.

In the final scene, as the white swan leaps to her death, Nina’s bloodstain from the stab wound grows, making this the fall to her actual death. In the closing shot, instead of a traditional fade to black, a blinding white light fills the screen as Nina utters her dying words of “finally feeling perfect”, which symbolizes her finally being set free from her misery, just like the white swan. 

Colour’s link with emotion can be wielded as a tool to make a film more profound, owing to the added layer of meaning that colour can impart to a scene. Once the significance of colour has been established in a film, it allows its viewers to make subconscious, emotional connections with its usage on the screen. Black Swan is a subjective character study, and the costumes, production design and Libatique’s mastery of light and shadows work together brilliantly to depict the tumultuous trajectory of an obsessed artist who is willing to go as far as it takes to achieve perfection.

Nidhi Munot is a second-year Economics and Finance student at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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