Theory in a Digital Age: A Project of English 483 Students, Coastal Carolina University

Film Analysis Part 1


Physical Doubles as defined by Strauss are “doubles that physically look similar to the original.” (The Semiotics of the Doppelganger) This would be the most commonly used group of doubles used in film/cinema. It also is the one of the main groups shown in the 2010 film, The Black Swan. In the 2010 film, writer Andres Heinz and director Darren Aronofsky put a psychological and dark twist on the original play. The play was first written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (a Russian composer from the 1800’s). In his play, Tchaikovsky tells the story of the young, virginal princess, Odette. However, the sweet princess is trapped in the body of a beautiful swan by the curse of an evil witch. In order for Odette to break the curse she must first find true love, which she finds with Prince Siegfried after her evil, lustful twin sister Odile tricks and seduces Siegfried. Devastated by these findings, Odette ends up killing herself to free herself from the curse and her evil sister Odile.

    In the film The Black Swan, the storyline of the original play is used, however director Darren Aronofsky brings the story to life by creating an internal and psychological struggle within the main character Nina. The film begins with Nina (Natalie Portman), a younger ballerina who dreams of dancing the part of the White Swan someday. When Nina arrives that day at her dance studio she comes to find out that Beth, the lead dancer (played by Winona Ryder), has been fired due to her old age as a ballerina. Nina’s director Thomas then announces to the studio that their first performance will be Swan Lake. As the dancers warm up and begin their practice, Thomas goes around the hall tapping dancers on their shoulders and informs the studio that those who are tapped should continue with their normal practices, and that those who were not tapped should meet him in the principal studio at the end of practice. It is later that evening that Thomas holds auditions to find Beth’s replacement in the principal hall; where Nina dances the part of the White Swan as her audition. Being impressed with her audition as the White Swan, Thomas then asks Nina to dance the part of the Black Swan, but as she begins to dance the part, Nina is interrupted by the late entrance of the new dancer Lily. Trying to regain her composure from being interrupted Nina finishes her dance as the Black Swan, but does not impress Thomas; telling her that she failed to capture the sensuality of the Black Swan.

    The next day Nina visits Thomas and he informs Nina that he gave the role to one of the other dancers. When Nina says ‘okay’ and goes to walk out of Thomas’s office, he then slams the door and asks her why she so easily gives up. He then kisses her, and being taken by surprise, Nina then bites his lip and runs out of his office. Later that day Thomas posts the casting list outside his office and everyone, including Nina are shocked to see that Nina got the part as both the White and Black Swan. After earning her roll, Nina begins practicing everyday for several days, and as stress takes over her body she begins to lose her focus and can not perform to part. This constant worrying is what causes Nina to first encounter her double. While walking down the street she begins to see an evil/ dark version of herself mixed within the crowds of people she walks by. After seeing what she thought was an evil double of herself, Nina continues to struggle with the capturing the essence of the Black Swan. When Lily sees this, she informs Thomas to not be so hard on Nina. When Nina is confronted by Thomas about the comment that Lily had made to him, Nina then goes and finds Lily and tells her to stay out of her business. Later that evening Lily goes to Nina’s house to apologize and convinces Nina to go out with her; after a drug and alcohol filled night Nina and Lily go back to Nina’s apartment where they begin to sexually please one another. Here is where we once again see Nina’s reality slip from her hands. While being pleasured by Lily, Nina looks up to see Lily transform into herself and then back into Lily; which in return scares Nina. In the morning Nina wakes up alone and looks at the clock to see that she is late for practice. When she arrives at practice, Lily is dressed in her costume and dancing her part. When Lily approaches Nina, she informs Nina that she was only filling in for her because Thomas instructed her to. Nina then asks Lily about the night before and why Lily had left so early in the morning, and Lily then informs her that the last time she had seen Nina was in the club because Lily had gone home with a guy. Nina then tells her what had happened in her bedroom and Lily tells Nina she is flattered that Nina had a wet dream about her. Becoming frustrated, uncomfortable, and confused, wondering if what had happened in her room actually happened, Nina runs away.

    Here is where I will begin to break down what has happened in the film thus far in terms of the “physical doubles” group presented in this film. In a quote from Pilar Andrade’s article “Cinema’s Doubles, Their Meaning, and Literary Intertexts”, he quotes Tzvetan Todorov saying: the fantastic happens when we are not sure if something is real or just imagination. This quote gives reason to the two delusions Nina has had thus far in the film, showing a development of that thriller aspect of a film using physical doubles. It is within these scenes that reality is slipping from Nina’s hands and she is beginning to fear this idea of the double that is being presented in the film. (Andrade 5) Nina is questioning whether or not what she is experiencing is real or whether it is just a figment of her imagination.

    As the film continues, director Darren Aronofsky introduces another group of the double: reflection doubles. Strauss describes this group as doubles that are reflections rather than duplicates. Continuing with the storyline, after questioning her sanity, Nina goes to get refitted for her costume. This where the reflection double is first seen in the film. While being fitted, Nina sees herself scratching at her back, when in reality she is standing still as the seamstress takes her measurements. It is then that Lily comes over and tells Nina that Thomas has made Lily Nina’s alternate. This sends Nina into a downward spiral and she runs confront Thomas about his decision. When she reaches Thomas Lily explains to Thomas how she believes that Lily is trying to steal her role. Thomas goes on to laugh and explain to Nina that several girls are out to get her role, and that she is just being a paranoid dancer; he continues by telling Nina that the only person trying to sabotage Nina would be “Nina”. That night Nina goes into the studio to get once last practice in before her opening night, and while in the studio alone the lights are shot off. When she calls out asking for someone to turn the lights back on, she turns to see her reflection in the mirror once again moving. She then runs when she sees a black cloaked figure and hears some laughter. Following the laughter and the cloaked figure she is lead to Thomas’s office where she finds Lily (transforming into Nina) having sex with Thomas on his desk. This upsets Nina, leading her to flee from the studio. It is here with the “reflection double” that we see how Nina discovers the reality of her double. This is what shows that the double in the film forms as an embodiment of the actual person. The double is an embodiment of what Nina wishes she could be like (ultimately Lily or the Black Swan). Nina wishes to be everything that a Black Swan should be: sexy, intriguing, confident, and sexual – everything that Lily is. It is Nina’s fear of her own weaknesses that cause her fear when she sees her double or reflection. This can allow for the Freudian theory to take place; as mentioned earlier on.

    It is at the end of the film that you see the use of the double come into a full circle. This would also be where Aronofsky’s use of narratology double becomes very clear. The narratology double (as Strauss defines it): is where narratives use doubles to build characters or insights. The entire Black Swan film is based off this narrated story of Nina, and her insane; yet almost sane delusions of herself. The entire premise of the film is to tell the story of Swan Lake, Aronofsky just presents it in a more unique way. He uses Nina’s character to portray the Swan Lake play; providing the audience with a real-life version of Odette and her doppelganger self, Odile. It is at the end of the film when Nina demands to play her part when she shows up late and sees Lily getting ready to take the stage that you see that Nina’s double has taken over full control of her. She has in other words taken on the identity of Odile or Nina’s superego. It is this scene that is the biggest portrayal of Freud's Uncanny Double, and the one scene in the movie which embodies the thrilling theme of the double in film/cinema. It isn’t til after her magnificent performance as the Black Swan (her full transformation), that Nina returns to her dressing room to get ready for the last act of the play that she then realizes she in fact stabbed herself and not her evil double; proving Freud’s idea of how the true self will eventually try to protect their self and attempt to kill their evil double. Thus, showing how the double in film is feared.


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