In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for Black Swan, we will explain the film’s ending.
- Nina Sayers/White Swan/Odette – Natalie Portman
- Lily/Black Swan/Odile – Mila Kunis
- Thomas Leroy/The Gentleman – Vincent Cassel
- Erica Sayers/The Queen – Barbara Hershey
- Beth MacIntyre/The Dying Swan – Winona Ryder
- David Moreau/Prince Siegfried – Benjamin Millepied
- Written by – Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin
- Directed by – Darren Aronofsky
The end of Black Swan explained
The final stretch of Black Swan is the long-awaited opening night of Swan Lake with Nina as both the White and Black swans. In the first portion of the dance, as the White Swan, Nina is terrified and fragile and so anxiety-ridden that makes her even more terrified and fragile. She blames David. Back in the dressing room, she has a dramatic confrontation with Lily/herself that culminates in using the shard of a broken mirror to stab Lily in the gut.
When Nina returns as the Black Swan, it’s with an entirely different energy. Confident, alluring, kind of terrifying. All the hesitancy and fragility is gone. Nina’s in a full on flow state and dances perhaps the best she’s ever danced, turning into a half-human half-swan as she does. The crowd gives her a standing ovation. She kisses Thomas.
Heading back to the dressing room, she has to worry about Lily’s body. Nina prepares to return as the White Swan. A knock at the door reveals Lily there to congratulate Nina. Alone again, she checks the closet and there’s no body, no blood. It turns out the glass is in her. She stabbed herself. There’s a moment she must confront the reality of her fantasy. And it shatters her. But she finishes her make-up and returns to the stage. Once again, she dances her heart out. Fragile, delicate. Right at the final moments, atop the stage mountain, her wound opens. Her mother’s in the audience, crying. Nina’s crying. And she jumps from the “mountain”. It’s over. The show’s done. Everyone applauds her.
“Can you hear them? They love you. My little princess, I always knew you had it in you,” says Thomas. Then Lily gasps. Everyone finally notices the wound. “What did you do?” Thomas asks. “What did you do?” Nina says, “I felt it.” He says, “What?” “I felt perfect. I was perfect.” Then, as the crowd chants “Nina”, white light annihilates the screen.
It’s not what you expect
On first viewing, the initial takeaway is probably something like “Nina is mentally unwell and the anxiety of the role has triggered a very dangerous episode that’s caused her to not only hallucinate but self-harm.” But it goes deeper than that. Nina’s a perfectionist. And Black Swan is an exploration of perfectionism. Both the greatness it can allow you to achieve and the cost of such a pursuit. Initially, it seems like Nina is completely overwhelmed and a victim of her anxiety. But it’s implied that maybe this was more calculated. That Nina was simply getting into character to best portray the fragility of the White Swan and the id of the Black Swan. Meaning she didn’t unknowingly stab herself. Rather, part of her made the decision to stab herself because it was best for the performance. That’s the point of the story.
It’s not that Nina’s mentally unwell and a series of unfortunate events transpires. It’s that Nina is so desperate to give a perfect performance that she has no limits. The role calls for mental duality, so she cultivates mental duality. The role calls for the White Swan to die, so Nina mortally wounds herself. That’s why her last words are, “I felt perfect. I was perfect.” She only cared about the quality of her performance.
Black Swan is a companion piece to Aronofsky’s previous film, The Wrestler. Wrestler looked at the final stages of Randy the Ram’s career. He went from pop culture relevance to living in a trailer, isolated from friends and family, struggling to get by on the independent wrestling circuit. He loves what he does, but what he does has ruined him. He’s told that if he wrestles another match, his heart might give out. Of course, he wrestles anyway. The conclusion is spiritually the same as Black Swan. Randy goes up to the top turnbuckle for his famous diving headbutt finishing move. The crowd cheers. Randy begins to cry. Then he jumps. The implication being this is the end of his life. He gave his everything to the sport.
As dramatic as The Wrestler is, it’s not far from reality. Wrestling is grueling and takes a tremendous physical and mental toll on those who make a career out of it. Most were paid very poorly and many spent the backend of their lives in pain and poverty. Randy is a dramatic representation of the twilight years of many athletes, especially from the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
Black Swan is another side of the coin. It’s about the pressures of someone trying to have a break in their career. What you have to go through to have that big opportunity to make a name for yourself. And the anxiety that comes with the pressure to perform at an almost perfect level just to have the chance. Especially in something as particular and competitive as ballet. So you have Randy at the end of a mostly male sport. And Nina at the beginning of a mostly female sport. Both give their lives.
We’re supposed to extrapolate this to our own lives. What is your relationship with your job? Do you let it dictate your life more than it should? Are you going down a similar path to Randy or Nina? Can you step back and find some balance? Of course, you probably won’t end up like Nina, because movies are extreme examples. But you shouldn’t need, want, or have to do what she did. That’s also Aronofsky’s point: our professions often have unreal expectations. They ask more of us than they should. And, for a menagerie of different reasons, we’re inclined to give more than we should.
The connection to Perfect Blue
Aronofsky denies it, but Black Swan is a retelling of the Japanese anime film Perfect Blue. Back in 2000, he referenced Perfect Blue in Requiem for a Dream, doing a full recreation of a shot. Like, straight up copy and paste. Which is fine. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of homage. But the main character in Perfect Blue is named Mima. She’s stalked by another version of herself. She’s trying to be an actress and the plot from the murder mystery she’s working on dovetails with her own life. Sound familiar? Speaking of sound: Nina. Mima. Nina. Mima.
One of the visual motifs in Perfect Blue is light intensity. The first instance happens at the end of a brutal scene where Mima, as part of the murder mystery TV show, has to act out a r***. It starts fine and artificial but quickly loses that sense of pretend. By the end, it looks, sounds, and feels real. The camera cuts between Mima, the faces of the men holding her, and the stage lighting. It then rapid-cuts between Mima’s face and the lights and she suffers a mental break that ends with the light washing everything out.
For the rest of Perfect Blue, there are moments of bright light. And it’s always associated with the idea of stardom. Whether it’s the stage lighting or camera flashes or the lights of an oncoming truck. At the very end, the character who is completely broken is surrounded by white light. While the character who has recovered is not.
Since Black Swan is so heavily inspired by Perfect Blue, it makes sense that the last shot is of the stage lights. It’s borrowing the same symbolism that “bright light” equals the toxic pursuit of performance and the stardom and praise that comes with it.
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