Spoiler Scale (How spoilery is this article on a scale of 1 to 10?): 9
(NOTE: The essay also includes discussions of the films, The Red Shoes (1948), All About Eve (1950), and The Tenant (1976).)
Black Swan opens within a dream. Nina (Natalie Portman) is performing a solitary sequence from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake (1876) where the evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart, has cast his spell upon the fair Princess Odette, turning her into the White Swan. Shortly thereafter, in the “real” world, Nina warms up in the New York City Ballet rehearsal studio, and the director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) both sets up the plot of Swan Lake and throws down the gauntlet for Nina:
“We all know the story. Virginal girl, pure and sweet, trapped in the body of a swan. She desires freedom, but only true love can break the spell. Her wish is nearly granted in the form of a prince. But before he can declare his love, the lustful twin, the Black Swan, tricks and seduces him. Devastated, the White Swan leaps off a cliff, killing herself, and in death finds freedom. … We open our season with Swan Lake – done to death, I know – but not like this. We strip it down, make it visceral and real. The new production needs a new Swan Queen – a fresh face to present to the world. But which of you can embody both swans – the White and the Black?”
Nina, who is reaching her prime in a ballerina’s abbreviated career, has been promised larger presence in the upcoming season, and the lead role in Swan Lake is in her sights. While Thomas is convinced of Nina’s controlled and precise take on the White Swan, he doubts that she can convey the necessary qualities of the Black Swan. Nina eventually secures the spot, pleading with Thomas, “I just want to be perfect.” But the journey to opening night is a bumpy one.
Nina’s mother (Barbara Hershey), with whom she shares an apartment, both supports and suffocates. And then there is the drama within the dance company itself. Thomas seems intent on sexualizing the frigid Nina to loosen her up for taking on the Black Swan, which is misinterpreted by the rest of the world as Nina sleeping her way to the top. Even though she eventually secures the role, Nina is clearly threatened by Lily (Mila Kunis) – the new arrival from San Francisco who Thomas believes embodies all of the aspects that would be necessary for the Black Swan. Meanwhile, the ballet’s star/Thomas’ ex-lover – Beth (Winona Ryder) – has been put out to pasture and attempts to kill herself.
All of this seems to push Nina down the road to psychosis. Rash-like wounds on her upper back appear, which could be the result of obsessive compulsive scratching or something worse. And then there are the sightings of her doppelgänger, which seem to increase in frequency and intensity as she works to find the duality of the Swan Queen. These episodes culminate with the opening night performance, where the art merges with Nina’s reality, as she literally transforms into the Black Swan and ultimately loses her own life in a battle between the opposing forces of her fractured psyche.
The Pathology of Nina
On its surface, Black Swan seems to be a cautionary tale – i.e., “the quest for perfection can unhinge the unwary” (Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times (December 3, 2010)); “perfection in one area of life [leads] to sacrifices in many of the others” (Roger Ebert, rogerebert.com, (December 1, 2010)). But such readings leave so many details unaccounted for.
Similarly, others have reduced Nina’s descent into permutations of the following formula: mother issues + repressed sexuality + stress and pressure of the ballet = madness. (See, e.g., Susan Donaldson James, Black Swan: Psychiatrists Diagnose Ballerina’s Descent, ABC News (December 20, 2010).) But to conclude that “[b]allet made her psychotic” (Joan Acocella, Black Swan in Red Shoes, The New Yorker (December 23, 2010)) also misses a critical question. That is, on a planet of billions of people, there are a lot of pretty little girls who have the athletic propensity to be premiere ballerinas. But what type of girl/woman does it take to endure both the physical demands of the ballet and the slings and arrows of the competition and the management? While we would all like to believe that there is some pure love of the art that motivates such performers, Aronofsky shines a light upon what he describes as an extremely “insular” world.
On one distinct level, Black Swan is a portrait of Nina as a narcissist. We are not talking about the sort of self love that leads to healthy level of self-preservation and self-esteem – which Sigmund Freud referred to as “primary” narcissism – but a more extreme manifestation referred to as “secondary” or pathological narcissism. In his essay “On Narcissism” (1914), Freud discussed the links between this level of narcissism and both auto-eroticism and psychosis, both of which are dramatically presented in Black Swan. (Sam Vanknin, Ph.D, Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited (2007), pp. 289-298.) In any case, the fact that one suffers from a proverbial headache (i.e., pathological narcissism) does not prevent one later developing a toothache (i.e., schizophrenia). And there is more to Nina and Black Swan than a singular descent.
“Pathological narcissism is a life-long pattern and obsession with one’s self to the exclusion of all others and the egoistic and ruthless pursuit of one’s gratification dominance and ambition.” (Vanknin, p. 35.) Along this clinical paradigm, Nina seems to exhibit at least five of the nine proposed amended criteria for diagnosing an individual with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. (Vanknin, pp. 36-37).
First of all, Nina is obsessed with fantasies of perfection. Consider the image that opens the film.
And then consider the last lines of the film that Nina utters to Thomas as she lays dying. “I felt it. Perfection. I was perfect.” Striving for a perfect performance is one thing; but having delusions of perfection is quite another. The objective fact that seems to escape Nina’s self-assessment is that she actually fell down during her “perfect” final performance. And the obsessive nature of this preoccupation with perfection is evident from Nina’s repeated use of the word throughout the film, such as when she pleads with Thomas to give her the Swan Queen role (“I just want to be perfect“) or when she attempts to explain to Beth why she stole her personal items from her dressing room (“I wanted to be perfect like you!“).
Nina is also convinced that she is unique and can only be understood by the few other people who she considers to be highly-talented. In spite of the unwanted sexual advances, she defends her relationship with the seemingly lecherous Thomas to Lily, her mother, and others. For example, Beth asks Nina, “What did you do to make him change his mind [about casting you] – did you suck his cock?” To which Nina responds, “Not all of us have to.” Unlike all of the other dancers Thomas has bedded, Nina is so talented that she will not have to have stoop to sleeping with him to earn the part.
Nina also requires an excessive amount of attention, adoration, and affirmation – even when the acquisition of this “Narcissistic Supply” carries with it a discernible level of distaste (Thomas) or a regression in psychological development (“Mommy”). And when Nina exits the stage after her first appearance as the Black Swan – with an enthralled audience chanting her name (in what may be part auditory hallucination considering the decorum of a ballet performance) – the orgasmic look on her face in this consciously extended shot reveals much more about Nina’s psychology than a psychotic break.
Nina also seems to be unable or unwilling to identify, acknowledge, and accept the feelings, needs, or preferences of others. When she laughs with her mother, there is a distinct artifice to her voice and gesture. And when she attempts to have a conversation with two men in the bar, the topic shortly turns to her one obsession, as she embarrasses Lily by offering to comp them into a performance. Clearly, most people are not interested in the ballet; but Nina has never had any real interest in understanding what most people care about.
Finally, not only does Nina covet Lily’s natural ability to reflect the qualities of the Black Swan, but Nina’s envy grows to the point of paranoid and persecutory delusions – particularly when she confronts Thomas upon learning that he has cast Lily as Nina’s alternate.
Nina: It can’t be her! It can’t be her!
Thomas: What’s going on?
Nina: Lily. You made her my alternate!
Thomas: Well, there’s always an alternate – Lily’s the best choice.
Nina: No, but she wants my role.
Thomas: Every dancer in the world wants your role.
Nina: No, this is different! She is after me! She is trying to replace me!
Thomas: Nobody’s after you.
Nina: No, please believe me!
Thomas: Hey, I know it’s been a struggle. But you just had a breakthrough this morning. Tomorrow’s yours. Just give a great performance and you won’t have to worry about Lily or anybody else.
Pathological narcissism is considered a defense mechanism intended to deflect hurt and trauma from the victim’s “True Self” into a “False Self” – an identity and narrative construed by the narcissist to be invulnerable, omniscient, and omnipotent that stifles and paralyzes the True Self into virtual irrelevance. (Vanknin, p. 169.) In this sense, Nina has undergone a split before she ever appears on screen for reasons to which we are not privy (and Aronofsky is not particularly interested in exploring). That said, like Nina (and contrary to the more stereotypical portrayals within popular film), narcissists can be socially withdrawn and exhibit a false modesty and humility to mask their underlying grandiosity. (Vanknin, p. 39.) And most tellingly, “the narcissist is incapable of enjoying anything because [s]he is in constant pursuit of perfection and completedness.” (Vanknin, p. 64.) Indeed, we never see Nina taking any joy in her dancing – only in the adoration of the audience. Rather, the “schizoid” narcissist rarely expresses feelings and tend to only trust first-degree family members; and even then, their bonds are not really close. (Vanknin, p. 289.)
This brings us to Nina’s mother. Again, we are not witnesses to the actual factors that would have resulted in Nina’s pathological narcissism. But narcissism tends to breed narcissism, and most pathological narcissists have at least one narcissistic parent. (Vanknin, p. 493.)
“The narcissistic parent regards his or her child as a multi-faceted source of Narcissistic Supply. The child is considered to be and treated as an extension of the narcissistic parent. It is though the child of the narcissist seeks to settle ‘open scores’ with the world. This child is supposed to realize the unfulfilled dreams, wishes, and fantasies of the narcissistic parent.” (Vanknin, p. 493.)
The narcissistic parent’s exercise of control over her child helps sustain the illusion that the child is part of the narcissistic parent, and that control can be guilt-driven (e.g., the reminder that her mother quit dancing at age 28 to have Nina) and goal-driven (e.g., providing “advice” on how to handle the audition process for the Swan Queen). (Vanknin, p. 493.) In this regard, Nina’s mother maintains Nina in a state of arrested development within a 12 year-old girl’s bedroom, refuses to acknowledge or inform Nina of callers, and drags Nina to the bathroom to trim her nails when it appears she may be hurting herself (rather than dragging her to a professional).
Reflection and Duality
Amateur clinical assessments aside, Aronofsky has included a number of visual clues to Nina’s psychology beyond her more obvious psychosis. Mirrors and reflective surfaces are omnipresent throughout Black Swan. Conveniently enough, ballerinas practice in front of mirrors to constantly check their own “lines.” But from the beginning of the film, this motif first arises outside of the rehearsal studio. In one of the first scenes in the film set on a subway car, Nina is not checking her lines – she’s checking herself out.
(This shot in the subway car window is repeated later in the film, as Nina applies the lipstick she steals from Beth’s dressing room.)
The doppelgänger of Black Swan is a manifestation of a more general aspect of narcissism – self-objectification. (In its most obvious manifestation in the generic Hollywood comedy, the narcissist refers to him or herself in the third person.) And nowhere is this self-objectification more evident than in one of the first sequences that Aronofsky imagined for the film and discussed with Portman almost a decade before production began – the liaison between Nina and Lily in Nina’s bedroom. On first viewing, as the scene commences, the viewer suspects that all of Nina’s frigidity toward Thomas may be based on her homosexuality. But the reality is that Nina is not making love to another woman.
Rather, Nina is making love to herself.
In the midst of all of these Polanski-esque visuals, the viewer is privy to the true reality that Nina should also realize – that is, although Lily is absent from her bed the next morning, the barricade from inside her bedroom door is still intact. Yet Nina is unable to process or accept that reality, as she later confronts Lily about abandoning her. (Lily’s response: “Oh my god, you fantasized about me! Was I good?”)
To be sure, Lily is the natural object of Nina’s psychosis. In a key scene shortly after Nina secures the role of the Swan Queen, Thomas sees Nina spying on Lily dancing in the main studio and comments, “I watch the way she moves – imprecise, but effortless. She’s not faking it.”
While Nina’s hair is tied tightly in a bun, Lily’s hair flows freely. Nina usually wears white, and Lily black (that is, until Nina literally borrows Lily’s spare clothing for an uncharacteristic night on the town). Indeed, Lily even has black wings tattooed on her back.
Nina’s psychosis accelerates further in the third act, as the opening performance of Swan Lake draws near. At first, Nina sees parallels between Beth’s career and her own. (How long does Nina have left in the ballet?) And Nina’s interest in Beth is further fueled by Thomas, who refers to Beth’s performances in the past as “dangerous – even perfect at times – but also so damned destructive.” Beth’s self-destruction shows Nina that “[t]he narcissist ages without mercy and without grace.” (Vanknin, p. 204.) As one projection of Nina’s goal of embodying perfection, Beth ultimately becomes a sort of ghost of future past.
Nina next projects herself onto her mother.
And finally, in the midst of the opening and final performance as the White Swan, Nina goes from seeing her face on one of the supporting dancers (Lily) to seeing her face on all of the dancers.
And then comes the break. As a particular type of narcissist—socially inept in her obsession with technical precision—Nina’s False Self fits neatly with the performances of the corps demanded of her in the past and the expectations for the White Swan. But in Thomas’ interpretation of Swan Lake, portraying the Black Swan requires a certain “letting go” and a “seduction,” which are ill-suited to the False Self Nina has so carefully crafted and honed. Nina needs a new False Self to pull off the perfection she seeks. If the vertical split of her psyche between her True Self and her False Self (pathological narcissism) occurred before we first met Nina, the horizontal split of her False Self between the White Swan and the Black Swan (schizophrenia) ultimately proves to be her undoing. As expressed visually in the final performance, that horizontal split dramatizes—or gives an added dimension to—the vertical split.
But the focus upon Nina’s dualities should not be overstated. Despite the prevalent use of documentary-like 16mm handhelds, Aronofsky is clearly going for a melodramatic fable – not a personal character study. We are told very little about Nina’s history. We learn very few details about any of the psychological adversity Nina must surely have faced. The scope of Aronofsky’s thematic suggestion seems to be much broader. That is, beyond the vanity inherent in reflection, Aronofsky provides yet another separate (but related) motif to emphasize the duality of the True Self and the False Self that characterizes the narcissist.
But that duality also extends beyond Nina to the other artists and performers.
What Aronofsky has to say about the fractured narcissistic psyche seems to apply in a more general sense. What does it really take (psychologically speaking) to be an elite artist/performer? What kind of person would sign up for that? And would we all really want to be inside that headspace?
Postscript: Influences and Conspicuous Non-Influences
How much should we trust what directors have to say about their own films and their influences? Director Darren Aronofsky first considered the genesis of Black Swan while editing his second film, Requiem for a Dream (2000), and discussed the role with Portman almost a decade before its production. In interviews, Aronofsky has consistently cited three influences upon the film that ultimately became Black Swan.
The most significant influence appears to be the Fyordor Dostoyevsky’s novella, “The Double” (1846).* Dostoyevsky’s “hero”— a guy who never seems able to say the right thing—longs to rise from low-level to mid-level bureaucrat by marrying up the ladder. But his efforts are thwarted by the appearance of an exact copy of himself, who threatens to appropriate the hero’s life. Beyond the socio-political commentary and undertones specific to 19th Century St. Petersburg, Dostoyevsky conveys a fairly maddening (and maddening to read) account of a man succumbing to schizophrenia. And there are certainly similarities to Nina’s psychotic break.
From the world of film, Aronofsky has also cited All About Eve (1950) and The Tenant (1976). The latter film—the last installment of what is rather loosely referred to as Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy”—tracks the lengthy devolution of the sanity of a Polish immigrant in Paris (played by Polanski himself) as his paranoid hallucinations gradually get the better of him. To be sure, there are a few visuals (e.g., the shifting of faces) and an overall sense of creepy and quiet menace present in both films. But visually speaking, the work of David Cronenberg seems to be just as significant an influence upon Black Swan (if not more so).
All About Eve documents the meteoric rise of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) from sycophantic assistant if aging theatre diva Margo Channing (Bette Davis), to understudy, to the next big thing. Perhaps there was more to the relationship between the dancers in the original screenplay of Black Swan by Mark Heyman (“The Understudy”), but as portrayed in the film, Nina is certainly no Margo and Lily no Eve. What we get in Black Swan is an environment so hyper-competitive and catty that no member of the corps de ballet could possibly be surprised by a stab in the back. Still, the enigmatic last shot of All About Eve suggests another thematic common denominator between the two films.
And then there is the 600-lb. gorilla in the room. No discussion of Black Swan would be complete without mentioning the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film, The Red Shoes (1948). On the surface, the common narrative elements are uncanny. Both films use the ballerina as a functionary (in The Red Shoes, Moira Shearer as Vicky) to explore the tragic trajectory of artistic ambition, and each ballerina’s director (in The Red Shoes, Marius Goring as Julian) pushes (read: manipulates) her along that trajectory. And both films play as a fable within a fable – in the former, the red shoes in the adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s story inevitably lead to the bottomless pit of that ambition; in Black Swan, the duality of the White Swan and the Black Swan in Swan Lake parallels the fractured psyche of Nina in the pursuit of that ambition.
But as striking as these similarities may seem, these films are also separated by six decades of social and cultural evolution. In The Red Shoes, Julian is distinctly desexualized, and the force countering the pursuit of Vicky’s art is romantic love and a future with marriage and a family. In contrast, Thomas unapologetically links sex to Nina’s performance (on and off the stage), and Nina is bound by the demands of her own False Self and confined to a self-imposed state of arrested development. If The Red Shoes questions the effect of the relentless pursuit of artistic ambition on an otherwise talented and emotionally healthy person, Black Swan challenges its underlying assumption in the context of a much larger world – that is, can a talented and emotionally healthy person being even achieve that level of success?
* Incidentally, writer/director Richard Ayoade (Submarine (2010)) has formally adapted Dostoyevsky’s “The Double” into a comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska, which is currently scheduled for release in 2013.