A Detailed Analysis of Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) Through a Semiotic Approach With the Focus on Colour

Essay, 2020

9 Pages



Black Swan (2010), directed by Darren Aronofsky, explores in modern day, the life of Nina Sayers, a determined ballerina in her journey to become the principle in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake with the New York City Ballet Company. To reinforce Nina’s gradual emotional transition, the key elements that attract attention and strengthen the narrative lies in the usage of black and white, various values of red and sporadic appearances of the green hue. Defining ‘hue’ as the purest form of a colour and ‘value’ being the lightness/ darkness added to a hue (Sartori, Culibrk, Yan & Sebe, 2015, p. 312).

Colour, a form of non-verbal communication, physically effects the human senses such as taste, touch and smell however, this essay will mainly focus on the relationship between sight and the ‘spiritual harmony’ (Kandinsky, 2004) of colour, in supporting maximum emotional interpretation through narrative. The work of Russian artist and theorist, Wassily Kandinsky has guided deeper analysis of Black Swan into the underlying psychic experience which colour offers. Costume and lighting are examples of objects displaying colour and are believed to be ‘the outward expression of inner meaning” (Kandinsky, 2004); colours are ‘seen by the mind and not by the eye’ (Kandinsky, 2004). Aronofsky’s ‘inner need’, ie. desire for artistic expression, is constructed from three principles which trigger sensations in the human psyche (mind) and soul: colour harmony, form harmony and from the combined form and colour, object choice. This experience is only short-lasting and very personal, differing between individuals based on culture and religion; the experience also lacks significance unless unconsciously associated with a spiritual vibration, the psychic effect.

Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul. (Kandinsky, 2004)

Nina’s extreme passion and dedication towards dance, is demoralised by her perfectionist attitudes and increasing fixation on Lily, her antagonist, driving her to experience an escalation of both delusions and hallucinations, symptoms of schizophrenia. As suggested by Kandinsky, the power of using a lower value red, eg) through blood, symbolises her psychological pain and struggle, additionally supported when Nina is at home, distressed and hallucinating the animation of portraits, and as she rips them down a green wall is revealed (Black Swan, 2010, 76 mins). Her mother created the paintings, metaphorically suggesting the influence she has on the development of Nina’s hallucinations. In contrast to the energy of red and green: pink, white, black and grey implement varying degrees of tranquillity in calmer scenes.

Although Aronofsky has artistically chosen to take focus on the antitheses between black and white, an obvious contrast of light and dark. Kandinsky (2004) identified the same physical relationship between yellow and blue; their absence doesn’t imply a loss of their spiritual essence, the energy is instead concealed through the use of green (a result of mixing) and when present, is associated with Nina’s over-protective mother, Erica Sayers.

However subjective we interpret colours to be, Aronofsky tightens his control of audience perception by building especially negative associations with green. One observation is the absence of outdoor scenes, depriving the audience of much association with green and nature. Fragments of blue may be embedded in green to make it higher value (commonly found within nature), this presence of blue implies an aesthetic of greater relaxation and stability; as Kandinsky’s theory mainly explores the harmonies and relationships created rather than a break-down of individual colours meanings, this idea is further supported by the proposed colour wheel of theorist, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (2009, pp.230-231). However, Aronofsky’s intention works to avoid this, so makes use of a lower value green to eliminate any natural associations with environmental elements, further heightening an already fabricated, thought-provoking narrative and strengthening the effect and intensity of spiritual vibrations.

The glow of light from the overshadowing green lamp behind the mother as she gets increasingly more agitated when demanding Nina to show the scratches on her back (Black Swan, 2010, 50 mins) adds greater energy to the situation. As Nina becomes more independent, her mother (whom is frequently placed in-front of green walls when in a rage) responds with desperation and envy after realising she’s losing control of the fabricated world she spent years securing for Nina; which may also mask her own insecurities and loneliness as there’s no mention of other family friends or members. This example reinforces the spiritual ambiance of control and negativity emphasized through using green, and supporting Kandinsky’s views on the significance of form harmonisation with the human psyche in directing the audiences’ impression towards the desired intention of situations and character personality.

On the one hand, they show how in our chaotic and uncertain time people are desperately seeking evidence that someone, anyone, is really in control. But at the same time people also hate the idea of control – because everybody these days wants to be an independent, free individual… the desire for control and the desire for freedom. (Rosie Kay Dance Company, 2017)

Following a reflection of light, black is formed from the absence of colour; whereas, white, found at the opposite end of the spectrum, results from ‘nearly every colour in discord’ (Kandinsky, 2004). This collection of colours gives white its sense of composure and purity however, Kandinsky suggests that an extensive, simultaneous release of energy may cause an overload, draining white of its spiritual power; this complements to the lack of experience and exposure found in children, reinforcing Nina’s initial sensuous innocence. Before the final performance, Nina requires materials in the form of white face-paint to transform back into the ‘innocent’ White Swan (Black Swan, 2010, 80 mins), this visual example influences and deepens the connotations of white.

In contrast, the heavy definition of black is devised from being the lowest value on the spectrum, and when alone, conducts the ‘least harmony of all’ (Kandinsky, 2004). Therefore, suggesting that the power of black only emerges when harmonised to an object; Aronofsky builds the narrative using off-stage interactions and emotions, all leading towards the focal element of the film, the Black and White Swan, and the colours to metaphorically symbolise this role, in which every ballerina in the company aspires towards. The Elizabethan’s (1350’s) are one example explaining the association of black with negative emotions and more deviant, mysterious behaviours; the impact of the plague ie) the Black Death and also the association with evil, sees any black animal as unlucky. This idea is introduced as Nina dreams of being the White Swan at the very beginning of the film, however, is manipulated and controlled by the Black Swan character (Black Swan, 2010, 2 mins)

Other historical experiences, associate white swans with elegance and beauty however, the extensive contrast in values between a swan and black, creates spiritual vibrations in the soul, reinforcing the radiating power this role transmits. This idea supports the audience’s emotional interpretation of Nina’s psyche, when she’s seen dressed in white, walking around the black Black Swan statue in admiration (Black Swan, 2010, 29 mins) and envisaging her future self as it (proposing an additional layer, that being sophistication, as the black elements are placed in superiority through the colour and energy contrast, being an immobile statue). This imagery promptly shatters with Beth’s drunken, confronting behaviour towards her, Beth’s all-black appearance releases more energy, heightening the vulnerability Nina experiences and additionally the impact released through the power of black. Therefore, individually and collectively, the extreme energy of black and white gives the greatest juxtaposition over any other two colours, strengthening the impact of form and colour harmonisation and audience investment.

Aronofsky extensively limits costume to basic, neutral tones, which following analysis, highlights a connection with character behaviour. Nina’s outfits start out of a lighter, higher value (pinks, whites and greys), symbolising Nina’s personality and ability to naturally embrace qualities of the White Swan. When Nina psychologically moves a step towards fully embracing the deeper characteristics of the Black Swan, her outfits colours become progressively darker, including various shades of grey, being ‘motionless and spiritually very similar to green’ (Kandinsky, 2004) in the form of transmitted emotional energy. As discussed previously, lower values of colours symbolise bold, more daring qualities, thickening the plot as scenes become more intense and energised, explaining Nina’s avoidance of them, amidst the comfort and protection of her mother. In contrast, within Nina’s journey to self-discovery, Lily, her antagonist, only ever wears black and is therefore objectively used to personify the Black Swan in Nina’s everyday life, outside of the studio.

Outfits are one example that can be harmonised with colour however, various objects such as individuals’ personality can release a similar emotional aura, from the psychic effect that influences inner spiritual vibrations. Although Thomas’ role doesn’t require huge physical exposure, his energy and interactions with Nina significantly impacts her psychological journey and transformation. Sexual and mental manipulation carry their own power, however, aligning his behaviour with that of a darker nature intensifies this, in his attempt to provoke the deeper qualities of the Black Swan in her.

Another example being lighting, symbolising the direction towards dream fulfilment and radiating positive energy, as Kandinsky implied with white. Theorist Johannes Itten, supports the effect of lighting on the psychic effect, ‘the whiter the lighting…the purer the intrinsic colours appear’ (1970, p. 80) and the greater the emotional connection of eg) Nina’s dazed fouettes in rehearsal, combined with the strategic cinematography that reinforce symbolism of the lighting (Black Swan, 2010, 9 mins); this scene helps secure the audience interpretation of the film concept and Nina’s aspirations.

In line with her inner transformation, this white lighting develops into a ball of orange-yellow in her final moments on stage (Black Swan, 2010, 95 mins); the warmth felt from the energy transfer of natural features such as the sun and fire, symbolises feelings of success, relief and freedom, and ensures that the audience understands Nina’s achievements.

Kandinsky mainly focuses on the psychological experiences behind colour interpretation however, theorist, Goethe (1810) also studied physiological experiences, such as the after-image effect, “an image continuing to appear in one’s vision after the exposure to the actual image has ended” (Sartori, Culibrk, Yan & Sebe, 2015, p. 312). The energy from this phenomenon transmits an as powerful but different effect to the antithesis, black and white; both low values of red and green (direct opposites in Goethe’s colour wheel, defined as complementary colours) when combined, symbolizes passion, new power and courage, whilst commonly in the face of anger, foreshadowing important events, such as when Nina and Lily dance in a nightclub under red and green strobe lighting (Black Swan, 2010, 58 mins).

There is an ambiguity behind the symbolism of all colours, especially red; from the God of War in Roman Mythology, to fire, being one of the basic elements of life established in Ancient Greek philosophy, and also the relation that fire has with blood in Christianity. Traditionally, physiological elements eg. human blood, can associate red with ‘pain or disgust’ (Kandinsky, 2004) as it follows danger or religiously, sacrifice. Nina’s injury from her final hallucination (Black Swan, 2010, 88 mins), religiously symbolises sacrifice for the art, as her passion physically leaks out, this emotionally stimulates the audience’s inner psyche and ironically conveys some sense of relief regarding her achievements.

However, similar to orange, the warmth of a low value red can connect to the inner feelings of love, adding a sexualized element to this hue. Nina borrows lipstick from the principle’s dressing room as an act of admiration and empowerment however, when sexually violated by Thomas, her lipstick comes off (Black Swan, 2010, 16 mins) symbolising a loss of hope and passion. Within the ‘mise-en-scène’, red is introduced naturalistically, from Nina’s fingers, toes and nose or the red writing of “whore” on the mirror (Black Swan, 2010, 7 mins), drawing attention negatively against the contrasting white bathroom.

Historically, low values of red in harmonisation with superficial and abnormal elements eg) red eyes, symbolises a demonic, evil villain, an ironic symbolisation of the all-powerful, idolizing Black Swan which drives Nina’s behaviour. The intensity of Nina’s psychotic mind-set (parallel to her self-assumed rivalry with Lily) escalates through the use of this connection; ‘the more obvious the separation from nature, the more likely is the inner meaning to be pure and unhampered’ (Kandinsky, 2004).

As previously discussed, the presence of red dominates throughout the film, foreshadowing important situations. Pink, a ‘derivative of the red hue’ (Woollaston, 2016) is in closer relation to white, as it is higher value (supported by Goethe’s colour wheel, 2009), symbolising a calmer, less powerful nature; potentially subtly establishing the inner harmony between the energy of red and Nina’s psyche. Initially, Nina’s world from her clothes to her bedroom design constitutes around pink, symbolising the extent to which her mother inhibits her independence and ego development. Nina’s transformation appears to be a complete shift in personality however, following a hallucination, her true traits resurface as she covers “Lily’s blood puddle” with a pink towel (Black Swan, 2010, 86 mins), metaphorically symbolising her innate attempt to cover up her mistakes and protect her self-image. Softening the energy released from the red blood and reinforcing the connection of the inner harmony through these objects. The use of pink also softens Beth’s destructive energy as she lies in the hospital surrounded by pink curtains and bed sheets (Black Swan, 2010, 38 mins), being an example supporting the effect of harmonising colour with an individual/ or object on the energy and interpretation of a situation.


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A Detailed Analysis of Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) Through a Semiotic Approach With the Focus on Colour
( Middlesex University in London )
BA (Hons) in Theatre Dance
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detailed, analysis, aronofsky’s, black, swan, through, semiotic, approach, with, focus, colour
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Anonymous, 2020, A Detailed Analysis of Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) Through a Semiotic Approach With the Focus on Colour, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/542759


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