Lesbian Scene Analysis: ‘Black Swan’

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At Inside Out 2012, Toronto’s LGBT Film Festival, I struck up a conversation with a woman – about lesbian scenes, no less. As tantalizing as the premise sounds, she eventually digressed into a rather scholarly discussion about how most of these scenes are sensationalized, how they objectify women, how unrealistic they are, and, of course, their gratuitousness.

Although I tacitly agreed for the most part, the emboldened passion of her convictions left me reticent to be an equal part player in our tête-à-tête, or to disagree with her on the occasional minor discrepancy. I figured that the path of least resistance was to simply let her pontificate in taciturn silence, and pretend that I was listening.

But more seriously, I was content with my utter unimportance in the ‘conversation’ until she brought up a certain example – my beloved Black Swan. The much googled scene between Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman was the subject of her ire, with its alleged sensationalism leaving her shocked, and its critical acclaim leaving her chagrined. To me, she said, the entire scene was meant to draw more male viewers.

Before I had a chance to riposte, the line for the screening we were at started moving, and amidst the droves of people cramming the theater, I lost sight of her. I didn’t even get her name.

For the rest of the screening, I couldn’t help but think of her abject hate of Black Swan (thanks in large part to the absolute twaddle that was the screening, Cherry), and afterwards, I couldn’t control the insatiable urge to defend my favourite film of 2010.

So recently, I sat down and re-watched Black Swan, and have come up with a pretty thorough analysis/breakdown/build up to that scene – all to impress a woman that I met in a queue.

But this is for you, whoever you are – an ode to anonymous. I may not have gotten your name, but maybe, just maybe, I can change your opinion on Black Swan. And who knows – if I succeed in the latter, I might just succeed in the former.

To best understand the scene is to understand the character of Nina (Natalie Portman), and the best way to do that, is to analyze the character of Thomas (Vincent Cassel). A man that’s described as both “brilliant” and “a prick”, Cassel’s Thomas is the erudite ballet director, a man whose reputation and methodology demands, and begets, perfection from his performers.  As a part of his repertoire, Thomas is an astute judge of character, able to discern one’s strengths and weaknesses. Nina is no exception.

At the casting audition for the Swan Queen, Nina meek and mild performs with the upmost earnestness, which impresses Thomas to an extent. After her recital, he candidly tells her, “If I was only casting the White Swan, she’d be yours. But I’m not. Not so controlled. Seduce us. Not just the prince, but the court, the audience, the entire world.”

Later, feeling like she must vindicate her poor performance, Nina goes to talk to Thomas in his office. After her failed protesting, he says, “The truth is, when I look at you, all I see is the White Swan. Yes, you’re beautiful, fearful, fragile. Ideal casting. But the Black Swan? It’s a hard fucking job to dance both. In four years, every time I see you dance, I see you obsess, getting each and every move perfectly right, but I never see you lose yourself. Ever.”

Afterwards, expecting a carnal exchange, he inhabits the role of pervy wanker by forcefully kissing her. Nina reciprocates, and when things get more heated, she bites him on the lip – a sign of things to come.

This scene reveals two things about Nina. The first, is that she’s emotionally frigid, introverted, and farouche. The second is that, despite the first, she has a suppressed, volatile fervor. Underneath her glacial exterior lies a dancer of true, wanton passion, a dancer that can be the Black Swan.

The second point can also be exemplified by the way Nina see’s herself in other people; namely, people with sullen, more mysterious dispositions. Notice the scene where she is walking home one night and passes someone that resembles (is?) her. She sees herself in other people, and always the darker side. More about that later.

It’s also important to note that Nina’s nature is tabula rasa; she has been conditioned to be that way. Much of her emotionally vitiated lineage can be traced back to her overbearing mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey). A former ballerina herself, Erica’s ephemeral career was stopped short by her pregnancy with Nina, and in a way to relive her career by proxy, she burdens her daughter with the weight of her broken dreams and grooms her into the dancer she once was (or at least wanted to be).

One way to ensure this is to help Nina avoid some of the mistakes she’s made, like getting pregnant. Therefore, Erica turns the house into a prison, Nina’s room into a kindergarten. Her role as a mother soon extends into being that of big brother, constantly calling Nina to log her whereabouts and keeping her room akin to a 12-year old’s, devoid of adult maturity, femininity, or identity. In such an environment, it’s no wonder Nina’s so constrained, her artistic expression so parochial.

However, in a way that only a connoisseur can, Thomas sees something in Nina’s dancing. During a rehearsal, he says to Nina, “I knew the White Swan wouldn’t be a problem. The real work will be your metamorphosis into her evil twin. And I know I saw a flash of her yesterday. So, get ready to give me more of that bite (referring to the kiss).”

So by this point, we know Nina is capable of being the Black Swan. But the real question is how. Well, like always, Thomas has the answer.

After the gala reception, where he announces the retirement of the former star Beth (Winoda Ryder) and the debut of Nina, he brings the latter back to his home, and in a reprisal of his role as pervy wanker, he asks her, “You’re not a virgin, are you? Do you enjoy making love? Oh, come on. Sex. Do you enjoy it? We need to be able to talk about this”.

When her reaction denotes an overwhelming negative to his questions, he goes on to say, “I got a little homework assignment for you. Go home and touch yourself. Live a little.”

So the answer is sex. If the White Swan represents purity and innocence, then the Black Swan, her evil twin, must represent seduction and licentiousness. In order to inhabit the role, Nina has to unlock her hidden, repressed sexuality. Therefore, she has to be naughty. She has no other choice.

After Beth gets into a car accident, Nina and Thomas share a heart-to-heart, and here is where Nina has her epiphany. When Thomas suggests that Beth might’ve got in an accident on purpose, Nina, perplexed, asks why. He explains, “Because everything Beth does comes from within. From some dark impulse. I guess that’s what makes her so thrilling to watch. So dangerous. Even perfect at times. But also so damn destructive.”

What Thomas is quietly implying is that, to be perfect, one must lose all inhibitions. In order to be the perfect Black Swan, Nina must embrace and exploit her buried reservoir of sexuality. Like Thomas always says, she needs to lose herself.

But how can she do that? With her despotic mother at home, Nina hasn’t the room nor the privacy to ‘find herself’. Notice that one scene, in her room, where she tries, only to find her mother sleeping in a chair right next to her. With such an antiseptic life, how can she find a proper sexual muse or objet d’art? What’s a girl to do?

Here’s where Lily (Mila Kunis) comes into the picture. As a San Francisco dancer recently relocated to New York, her timely introduction into the corps creates a lot of intrigue in Nina. She is new, outgoing, and free-spirited. Her diametrical opposite. Some may even call her an evil twin.

While watching Lily dance, Nina is approached by Thomas, whom observantly says, “Watch the way she moves. Imprecise, but effortless. She’s not faking it.” Her uninhibited style and inherently confident anima makes Lily the perfect candidate for the role of the Black Swan, a fact that Thomas, in his attitude towards her, makes quite evident.

Secretly, Nina knows she needs to be like her, to be as seductive and sexually emancipated as she is. Thomas had said that in order to unlock her own sexuality, she must do so autonomously, and now, Nina has finally found her objet d’art in Lily. Lily is what she needs to strive to be, to become sexually. In a real sense, Nina must lust for her.

When Lily visits her at her house, Nina takes Thomas’ advice and acts on impulse. She goes out with Lily, to get drunk, to get high, and to get laid. However, she never takes her eyes and attention away from Lily, and when Nina once again acts on impulse after an altercation with her mother, the famous lesbian scene ensues. But the analysis doesn’t stop.

During this scene, where Nina’s sexuality is finally released, we begin to see her preliminary transformation into the Black Swan. The most important aspect of the sex scene is the changing faces of Nina’s lover. Initially Lily, she will eventually switch to an image of herself.

This does two things. Firstly, it shows how Nina is finally becoming the person that she has always wanted to be sexually, Lily. This is the beginning of her metamorphosis into someone like Lily, someone who can flawlessly play the Black Swan.

Secondly, this foreshadows the possibility of the entire affair being masturbatory, or hallucinogenic. From her history, we already get the sense that Nina projects a sexualized image of herself onto other people, and in her alleged escapade with Lily, it’s not beyond the realm of impossibility that she might do the same with her. Thomas instructed her to touch herself, and like always, Nina obeys.

Whatever reason you choose, it’s undeniable that this scene, and all of it precursors, acts as an important part of Nina’s character arc. The idea of a doppelganger also extends to the end of the film, providing plot twists and psychological tension. After this scene, she is able to perform the Black Swan because she has become the sexualized, no-holds-barred person that she and Thomas wanted her to be. She has become perfect.

The lesbian scene in Black Swan is far from gratuitous. It is the natural consequence of Nina’s neurosis; her fears, her upbringing, and her strive to be perfect. Everything about the film points to Nina and Lily’s carnal convergence as inevitable. The scene isn’t superfluous; it’s the raison d’être. Conceived and executed with sublime mastery, the lesbian scene is visceral, poetic, and unforgettably beautiful.

– Justin Li

7 Comments
  1. Sammy says

    I saw the movie yesterday (I know, late hey?) and found it gratiutous and offensive. I think they could have left out the masturbation and sex scenes entirely, or made them less graphic, and gotten the same point across. It was disgusting and I feel like I wasted my time seeing this ballerina movie.

  2. marc says

    thank you for bothering to write this. have you ever read the wife of bath’s tale and prologue by chaucer. the wife kind of complains that her audience will judge her as a rampantly horny sort of person, who engages in extramarital sex. i have even heard people insist that she confesses to this. but this is an audience dominated by male ideas of women, judging her inappropriately – there is actually no information in the text to suggest that she has sex outside of marriage. she is chaste. there is something about nina’s fantasy or hallucination of sex with lily, as opposed to the idea that she could actually have sex with someone, in the context of what she is willing to do for her art, that reminds me very much of chaucer’s wife of bath.

  3. H says

    Nah, if two dudes were blowing each other with a sober classical soundtrack and busts of philosophers in the background, it’d still be a bit gratuitous

  4. Anonymous says

    Notice the men agree that the sex scene was not gratuitous whereas women disagree. In theatre, one must always be in control. Whether it’s the voice or the dance movements, esp. in ballet. Every turn, every lift of the leg. If you’re not, you’ll hurt yourself. The sex scene was completely gratuitous.

  5. Omiros says

    I think you should have analysed the formal elements of the scene as well. We can immediately notice that the music that is playing throughout the scene is far from erotic. The music helps more to bring out the psychological subtext of the scene rather than its erotic elements. It helps to emphasise Nina’s mental fragility which throughout this hallucination is brought onto the film’s surface; the audience might be aroused by the sexual act but the film does point towards the mental elements of the scene. We can also hear loads of the ‘swan’ and ‘feathery metamorphosis’ sound effects in the background, often in the moments when we see black spots appearing on her thighs where feathers are urging to come out as Lily goes down on her. I would therefore agree that the erotic scene is used much more in favour of Nina’s character arc, like you pointed out, than to turn on its audience. The warm lighting in the scene, however, is favourable towards the other side of the argument, sensationalising the womanly flesh. Nevertheless the camera stays on Nina for the majority of the scene as she is gradually reaching climax, which does favour your argument that the scene is not as gratuitous as it is a vital element of the plot to suggest Nina’s desire to be sexually active and to thus make the perfect black swan.

  6. JimmyTherapist says

    Well you didn’t explain anything that wasn’t quite obvious at a first viewing… I mean self-image issues, repressed sexuality, those are the core themes of the movie.

    However I do agree that the scene is not gratuitous; it serves as a climax for Nina’s search for her sexuality, and the way she just locks her mother out of the room proves it’s also an attempt of breaking free from her obsessive oppression. The scene itself could’ve been made less graphic, sure… but well, it did have a double intention of luring more viewers and publicity (which I’m sure it did).

  7. Bee says

    You basically just wrote about how the scene was important/justified/whatever, because sexual objectification was necessary for the production of Swan Lake…

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