Home > Movies, TV, Writing > Removing Reference: Disorienting the Audience in Black Swan

Removing Reference: Disorienting the Audience in Black Swan

Some of the most intriguing films have always been projects that leave you wondering what happened. Horror films like The Ring (2002) have lasting power by not explaining everything. The story completes, but something from the overall concept remains unsolved. In The Ring we learn that we weren’t supposed to help Samara, but it is never explained why. What makes this more confusing for the audience is that the only way to save yourself is to make somebody else watch the cursed video tape, essentially helping Samara spread her message.

But even in films with twist endings, and unexplained mysteries, the audience will normally remain rooted in their reality. You may be confused, but that comes from trying to figure out how this film is interacting with everyday reality. When we try to find a murderer in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), we wonder who actually killed Chancellor Gorkon, but the rules of the Star Trek universe have been laid out well beforehand so we do not become disoriented in this reality.

When a film like Black Swan (2010) comes out, it succeeds in disorienting the audience by removing these established rules and realities. While I try to remain as vague as possible, it is worth noting that this blog contains some spoilers regarding Black Swan, so you have been warned.

Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers in Black Swan

Black Swan, described as a ballerina thriller, seems to be a normal narrative at first glimpse. It follows Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) as she tries to land the leading role in her company’s production of Swan Lake. She struggles with the expectations of the demanding director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), achieving her mother’s broken dreams, and her own goal of perfection. Throughout the first half of this film, the audience is introduced to Nina’s mother, Erica Sayers (Barbara Hershey), as one of the many villains of the film. She pushes Nina hard, and forces her to live by her rules in her house. Erica pushes Nina hard to strive for perfection, the perfection that Erica herself could never achieve in ballet.

On the other side of the coin is Thomas Leroy, who pushes Nina in the exact opposite direction. He encourages her to let go of her pursuit of perfection and, instead, just live in the moment and enjoy her performance. From the audiences point of view, Nina is being pulled in two different directions and is on the edge of a breakdown because of it. Cue Lily (Mila Kunis), the yin to Nina’s yang. Lily is impulsive and completely free. She wouldn’t make as strong a White Swan as Nina, but she could be the perfect Black Swan.

Thomas Leroy (Cassel) seduces Nina

To this point, the audience is still in this film, believing this to be in a standard reality. No rules have been broken yet, and anything out of the ordinary can easily be attributed to dream sequences or imagination. It is at the point when Lily takes Nina out to a bar that things start to become disorienting.

Lily (Kunis) takes Nina out for drinks

At the end of that sequence is the scene where Lily seduces Nina. This is the point where Nina lets go, becoming her own person. She no longer cares what her mother thinks. Nina is emerging as her own swan, and the audience is cheering her on as she goes. The next day, however, we learn that Nina and Lily never had sex. It was simply a wet dream created by Nina’s mind. This is when things start to become disorienting for the audience, as the lines between reality and Nina’s dream world are blurred.

Lily seduces Nina

Writer Mark Heyman succeeds in making this world exceptionally disorienting for the audience as he slowly tears away each and every point of reference for the audience. If Nina and Lily didn’t have sex, who’s to say that anything else we see on screen is actually happening? Heyman exploits this as we go along by continually shifting between the two realities without cueing the audience as to which reality we are in. When things become violent between Lily and Nina, we can’t know if they are fighting in real life or if the conflict is entirely internal in Nina’s mind. Lily has become the anti-Nina in effect in Nina’s mind, so the audience has to deal with both reality Lily, and dark Lily, the Lily that eventually allows Nina to portray the Black Swan.

Lily and Nina fight over who gets to play the swan

Without a point of reference in the film, Black Swan becomes a fast paced, disorienting and downright thrilling film. But this is definitely not the first time we have seen this style used. Removing reference is a tried and true method to confuse an audience.

The lines blur as Nina becomes the Black Swan

In the Buffy the Vampire Slayer epsiode Normal Again (2002), a demon gives Buffy a hallucinogen that makes her wake up back in her original reality. Instead of being the Slayer, she is committed to a mental hospital thanks to her delusions of fighting demons. Her parents are still together and everything is as it was before she moved to Sunnydale. She spends the entire episode flip-flopping between the two realities.

Buffy in the hospital in Normal Again

In the end, Buffy choses to exist in the Sunnydale reality and returns fully there to help her friends. While we are clearly cheering for her to return to Sunnydale, it is left ambiguous as to which reality is real. There is no reason to not believe Buffy is actually in a mental hospital, and the doctor makes convincing arguments as to why the hospital is in the actual reality.  To add to the effect, the show ends in the hospital reality with the doctor informing Buffy’s parents that ‘she’s gone.’

These are only two examples of how you can enhance the effect TV and film can have on an audience by forcing them to try and figure out the world that surrounds them. How about you? What are your favorite examples of this process? Leave your thoughts in the comments!

Zac Hogle is a writer/director who has worked on several nationally broadcast series and documentaries. You can follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/zhogle.

All images are the copyright and property of their respective holders. No infringement is intended.

Categories: Movies, TV, Writing
  1. Gordon Durich
    January 17, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    Really well written. I love the comparisons and development of your thoughts. I have yet to see this, and this makes me want to see it even more. Great job. Keep it up!

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