Using Phenomenology to read Black Swan


Merleau-Ponty wrote “the body is the vehicle of man being in the world,”[1] encompassing the shibboleth of phenomenology. Phenomenology is a philosophical stance with emphasises the role of the body in the creation of meaning; suggesting that ultimately one experiences the world foremost as a body. Barker seeks to establish phenomenological thinking into cinema in The Tactile Eye. She considers cinema to be a tactile art form; an experience more sensual than visual.[2] Barker puts forward that cinema elicits sensations in its treatment of eye contact, skin, musculature and viscera. Barker’s consideration of skin and musculature in particular are intensely relevant to how Black Swan (Aronofsky, 2010) creates sensation in its viewers. The film’s obvious investment in the extremes of human body demands a full-bodied viewer. Using Barker’s work, however, it is evident that the film manipulates its viewer through intense focus on tactility and gruesome displays of flesh. Moreover, the viewer is required to assimilate with the body of the film itself. Consequently, Aronofsky creates a corporally uneasy viewer.

Barker purports that the tangible nature of haptic images encourage viewers to feel the skin of the film against their own. She asserts that it is through skin that cinema creates impressions of eroticism and horror. Skin has a unique relationship of reciprocity with the world due to its working as a boundary between body and world and thus is the first place sensation is experienced. Black Swan problematizes the notion of skin as the limit of internal and external in its body horror. Cruz defines the subgenre as being “characterised by the manipulation and warping of the normal state of bodily form”[3] such that the body becomes the fearful object. Physical aberrations and destruction are rife in Black Swan, implicating the vulnerability of the body of its audience. Aronofsky warps erotic feeling which originates on the skin in order to cause deeper bodily discomfort. In doing so, Barker’s proposal that “all disgust is originally disgust at touching”[4] is extended beyond the blatantly horrific to the sensual.

Marks perfectly demonstrates why Black Swan’s treatment of horror is so successful when she writes; “the uncanny loss of proportion in which big things slip the horizon of my awareness while small areas are arenas for a universe of feeling.”[5] Aronofsky largely concentrates on brief, but acute instances of pain to conduct horror. In light of Marks such moments are sensationally more effective, as the viewer is confronted with a single excruciating detail they can grapple with realistically in terms of their own body. Indeed, such moments of realistic and familiar pain are necessary in order for the viewer to appropriately ‘feel’ more extreme forms of assault on the body later in the film’s narrative.

In one scene, whilst washing her hands Nina addresses a sore blotch by her fingernail. The sound of water gushing from the tap is intensified and its irregular flow adds to the anxiety of Nina’s flurried handwashing. In addition, the sterility of the white sink draws emphasis to the redness of the irritated hangnail. Aronofsky introduces feelings of discomfort from minute and seemingly harmless details before the horror of the scene is revealed; a ‘gut-feeling’ that something is not right. Nina begins to pull at the hangnail, but rather than the loose skin simply tearing away, it rips a bloody gash that goes all the way to her knuckle. The immediacy of the horror eclipses narrative implications of the scene; Nina’s hallucinations being signs of psychological demise. One instead watches the scene with their own fingers, possibly even feeling the need to clench their fist to ensure the safety of their own digits.

In a similar moment, Nina splits her toenail in two misjudging a pirouette. Again, the film pre-empts the injury by instilling feelings of dread in its viewer. As Nina spins faster and faster, the camera focuses on her pointed foot which rotates in slow motion. An exaggerated, almost industrial, creaking noise accompanies the image causing her pointed toes to appear to grind into the hard wood floor. The audio urges the viewer to turn their attention within. The corporality of the creaking encourages the viewer to consider the inner workings of the foot; an intermingling of tendons and bones. This gruesome contemplation is alarming when partnered with the elegance of satin ballet shoes. The delicacy of the movement is emphasised and indeed the risk associated with it implicates the fragility of the viewer’s own body. An audible crack causes Nina to fall to the floor clutching her foot. Removing her shoe Nina reveals her splintered nail. Its grisly redness is painful contrast to her baby-pink pumps. Again Marks’ assertion is relevant, a universe is made of the wound as Nina probes at it before recoiling back in pain. Production of sensation in moments mentioned is reliant on their familiarity; most viewers will have endured a stubbed toe or aggravated hangnail. Black Swan’s success is in its exploitation of these experiences, pushing them to the extreme to corrupt the body.

It is through these concentrated instances of recognisable pain that Aronofsky’s film enables full-bodied empathy to the later unimaginable destruction of Nina’s body through metamorphosis. The film’s unwavering concentration on gruesome details persists when depicting her mutation. Tudor’s classification of horror deems Nina threatened by an ‘Unruly Body’[6].  His description of a ‘modern metamorphosis’ is easily transposed onto Black Swan; “[it] transmutes the whole body in agonizing detail… the process clearly locates itself as bodily, as coming from within, thus carrying with it a much stronger sense of bodies hijacking their terrified owners”.[7] Tudor’s emphasising the audience’s attention on the body excels the sensational aspects of metamorphosis. When one watches Nina grow birdlike features they do so first with fear for their body rather than with consideration for narrative worth.

A rash on Nina’s shoulder blade writhes and hisses as she examines it in the mirror. Its raw and cracked texture is repulsive. Moreover, the movement below the skin is even more threatening to the viewer as Nina’s body acts out its own corruption.  Small, black shards begin to break through the cracked skin accompanied by the sound of ripping. The camera goes into extreme close-up as Nina pulls one of the invaders out with her fingers. She gasps in pain as her body resists; the shard pulling the surrounding skin up with it and leaving a bloody puncture mark. Nina inspects the inch-long object revealing it is covered in branch-like bristles which multiply before her eyes, eventually resembling a feather. The viewer learns of the reality of her transformation at the same moment as Nina does herself. Together they go through stages of curiosity, anguish and disgusted realisation. Barker proposes that we are horrified by images that threaten our lived norm; “juxtapositions draw their power to disgust from our keenly tactile familiarity of what bodies feel like”.[8] Not only do the sore textures of Nina’s scaled rash assault the viewer, the feather’s non-human presence attacks the reality of the viewer’s body. Nina’s body is then more ardently warped. The camera tracks her slippered feet as they shuffle backwards across the carpet. Rather than allowing the viewer to derive meaning by reading facial displays of emotion, they are offered an image seemingly bereft of meaning. However, in choosing to edit the scene thus, Aronofsky creates a sustained feeling of uneasiness; anticipation that the horror has not yet finished. Nina’s legs suddenly buckle, bending backwards at the knee like a swan’s. This is such an instance as described by Barker where the film threatens to overwhelm the viewers’ senses. Cowering from the horror of the image “disrupt[s] our full-bodied relationship with the film.”[9] The viewer cannot bear to mimic the agony of the act, the extremes of the body have been breached.

Barker writes; “the tactile relationship between the film and the viewer is fundamentally erotic”.[10] She expands Marks’ claim the “haptic images are erotic regardless of their content because they construct an intersubjective relationship between viewer and image”.[11] Barker sees this eroticism as being derived from the intimate touching of the film’s body against the viewer’s.[12] Haptic images inspire eroticism in their stimulation of the viewer’s flesh; a longing to touch and to be touched.  In Black Swan however, this relationship is subjugated. Aronofsky warps erotic images such that they’re sensuality is disturbing. In a scene where Nina’s mother forces her to eat a slice of cake, the discomfort of the scene’s narrative is juxtaposed against natural feelings in the viewer of arousal to the images they’re confronted with. “It looks so yummy!” Nina pleads with a voice full of dread after her mother threatens to throw the cake away. Her mother responds by scooping some frosting onto her finger and reaching it towards Nina who reluctantly lets her deposit it in her mouth. The sound is amplified in order for the exaggerated squelching to articulate the cake’s smell, taste and physical presence as Nina swallows. Marks writes on the arousal she experienced watching a similar scene in which a girl sucks her own thumb; “Watching the tape feels like going on a journey through stages of erotic being: the longing for intimacy with another”.[13] Marks considers how an insignificant moment can cause a cascade of erotic feeling in the viewer. The meaning of the scene is thus derived from its tactility rather than narrative significance. The single moment in which Nina eats the cake has no visual difference form the one described by Marks and therefore can cause the same feelings of arousal. Black Swan deliberately warps such natural, and even inevitable, erotic responses to haptic images. What repels the viewer is not the mother’s act of physical invasion, but their aversion to their own physical feelings when watching the scene. One may even feel exploited by the film’s manipulation of their body’s sensuality. In becoming distrustful and even repulsed by their own body’s sensations, the viewer is made empathic of Nina’s hamartia in her ‘unruly body’.

Williams’ writing on ‘Body Genre’ problematizes Barker’s thesis. She describes ‘Body Genres’ as films interested in demonstrating a “gross display of the human body”[14] to produce sensation in viewers. Evidently Black Swan fulfils Williams’ depiction in its horror. Williams writes; “the body of the spectator is caught up in an involuntary mimicry of the emotion or sensation of the body on the scene” however, she introduces a cultural factor when she adds “along with the fact that the body on screen in female”.[15] Where Barker’s writing on phenomenology is decidedly subjective, Williams believes inherited attitudes towards gender dictate our reactions to the treatment of the body in cinema. She considers the three extremes of ‘Body Genre’: melodrama, pornography and horror; “in each of these genres the bodies of women have functioned as the primary embodiment of pleasure, fear and pain… [it is] the most sensational sight”.[16] Shaviro believes Black Swan to be an excellent example of a ‘Body Genre’ in its combing elements of melodrama, horror and pornography.[17] Nina is at once a hysterical heroine, victim of brutal horror and an object of sexual desire. Williams’ assertion that “it is through the sexual saturation of the female body that audiences have received their most powerful sensations” suggests Black Swan not to be sensationally successful due to its representation of eroticism and horror, but in its exploitation of the female body.

On the other hand, Barker’s focus is on the body of the film itself. She suggests, sensation is created through the viewers’ recognising their own movements in the movements of the camera. “Our bodies orient and dispose themselves to the body of the film itself, because we and the film make sense of space by moving through it muscularly and in similar ways with similar attitudes.”[18] Aronofsky promotes feelings of paranoia through the continually asking the viewer to alternate between empathising with Nina and the threatening body of the film itself. To articulate Nina, the film uses a hand-held camera and often imparts information through a series of several brief close-ups. The viewers’ vision being kept close to the protagonist and the action unites them with her and its jerkiness is suggestive of a human imperfection. In contrast, the film’s body moves with an eerie omnipotence. Barker discusses the possibilities of such a technique; “the Steadicam has an interesting and ambivalent relationship to human comportment because it mimics and transcends human styles of movement at the same time… humanlike and at the same time more perfect than human”.[19] Having to adopt and empathise with two muscular ‘bodies’ creates a sustained feeling of uneasiness in the viewer. Black Swan employs musculatures to create a paranoid viewer with whom the film’s narrative meaning can resonate fully.

The alarming split in the film’s musculature is paramount in a scene in which Nina is terrorised in the auditorium. The scene begins with the camera staged in the corner of the large room, immediately implicating the viewer in the act of spying. Nina can be seen in her entirety and in thus viewed objectively as an ‘other’. Indeed, the camera’s lingering outside of the action creates a curiosity in the viewer who compels it to move closer. The following shot however is focalised through Nina, encouraging the reader to adopt her perspective.  As she spins in pirouette the camera spins with her, rotating 90 degrees to face the mirror just as she does. Turning to face Nina’s reflection the mirror indisputably demands the viewer identifies with her. The viewer is united in Nina’s vulnerability; they too feel watched. The camera remains facing the mirror as Nina spins faster and faster, her feet rhythmically tapping on the floor. Not being able to see her feet, the clamorous audio seems sinisterly disconnected from the action. Gradually the terrifying realisation dawns that Nina’s reflection has fallen out of time with her. Again, the tension is created outside of the image. The incoherent audio and feelings of being watched allowed for an anxiety so potent it is visceral. The lights in the auditorium shut off causing Nina to flee. Her escape down the hallway is articulated through a series of inconsistent close-ups. The shots enact her desperation to regain control through attempts at understanding; they are efforts to capture the entire picture. The rapidly changing close-ups only increase panic as the viewer is acutely conscious of how much of the scene they omit. In contrast is the film’s embodiment of the threatening unknown. The camera is placed in faraway corners allowing Nina to be exhibited whole. Its gaze is calculated and seems to mock Nina’s futile flight in its inhuman meticulous movement. Barker writes; “Vision is enabled by a certain distance between seer and thing. The distance contributes to the medium of access to vision.”[20] Aronofsky’s manipulation of this dichotomy is what inculcates paranoia in his viewers; they must be both ‘seer’ and ‘thing’ at once.

Black Swan produces sensation in its utilisation of the haptic qualities of images and the possibilities of mimicry in the musculature of the camera. Aronofsky encourages physical feelings of repulsion, paranoia and even perhaps insanity in his viewer. By themselves negotiating such vivid somatic sensations, they can empathise with the film’s narrative and conceptual meaning.


[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty (originally published 1945), Phenomenology of Perception, (London: Routledge, 2002). 199.

[2] Jennifer Barker (2009), The Tactile Eye: Touch and Cinematic Experience (California: California University Press). 33.

[3] Ronald Allen Lopez Cruz (2012), ‘Mutations and Metamorphosis: Body Horror is Biological Horror’ in Journal of Popular Film and Television, 40:40. 161.

[4] Baker, The Tactile Eye. 47.

[5] Laura Marks (1998), ‘Video Haptics and Erotics’ in Screen, 39:4. 331.

[6] Andrew Tudor (1995), ‘Unruly Bodies and Unquiet Minds’ in Body and Society, 1. 28.

[7] Tudor, ‘Unruly Bodies and Unquiet Minds’. 33

[8] Barker, The Tactile Eye. 52.

[9] Barker, The Tactile Eye, 86-87.

[10] Barker, The Tactile Eye, 34.

[11] Marks, ‘Video Haptics and Erotics’, 341.

[12] Barker, The Tactile Eye. 35.

[13] Marks, ‘Video Haptics and Erotics’, 331.

[14] Linda Williams (1991), ‘Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess’ in Film Quarterly, 44:4. 3.

[15] Williams, ‘Film Bodies’, 4.

[16] Williams, ‘Film Bodies’, 4.

[17] Steve Shaviro (05/01/2011), ‘Black Swan- The Pinocchio Theory’ (Last accessed 12/04/2017)

[18] Barker, The Tactile Eye, 75.

[19] Barker, The Tactile Eye, 115.

[20] Barker, The Tactile Eye, 12.

By Joanna Mason

Joanna Mason (preferably Joey) is 20 and lives in Bristol in England. Her favourite things are when dogs smile and European supermarkets. She’s also completely head over heels in love with Simon Pegg. Some of her favourite films are Amelie, Fight Club, Donnie Darko and anything directed by Wes Anderson, but this list is ever-growing. You can follow her on twitter @JOEYANANA if you like.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.