Director: Darren Aronofsky 2010
Starring: Natalie Portman, Barbara Hershey, Vincent Cassel
Produced and Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Reviewed by Zachary Boren
A thematic companion to his 2009 film The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan focuses on the experience of an individual, this time a New York City ballerina, whose identity and ego are overly invested in her craft. When Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) wins the role of The Swan Queen in a major production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, her fragile psychological state reveals itself and her sanity begins to unravel. The role of The Swan Queen requires Nina to effectively embody both the purity and innocence of The White Swan and the power and sexuality of The Black Swan. Soft spoken and ill at ease with the world around her, Nina is a perfect fit for The White Swan but struggles in her attempts to seduce as The Black Swan. The ballet director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), pushes her to feel rather than think, to be rather than to act and, in doing so, challenges Nina’s unhealthy dependency on her mother, the foundation of her ego. Leroy, in effect, asks Nina to communicate with her instincts and it is this conversation, one that continues throughout the film, that triggers Nina’s psychotic breakdown. Aronofsky’s depiction of psychosis is fundamentally accurate: Nina suffers from delusions and has intricate visual hallucinations. However, because the film unfolds entirely from Nina’s perspective, because Aronofsky makes no attempt to clarify the difference between appearance and reality, and because the story is highly allegorical, the viewer is made to feel as though they too are going mad.
The viability of Nina’s psychosis is confirmed when one considers the consistency of her characterisation and the gradual revelation of her mother’s particular brand of madness. Erica (Barbara Hershey) is a failed ballerina turned amateur artist who views her daughter as an extension of her ego: Nina is to succeed in place of her mother. Nina’s father is not spoken of nor shown, whereas the over-intimacy between Nina and her mother is illustrated early and often through, for example, Erica bathing and undressing Nina. Erica has also instilled an unrealistic expectation to be “good” and virginal in her daughter. It is this expectation that prevents Nina from effectively embodying The Black Swan and, consequently, it is this expectation that Leroy tries to reverse. Leroy acts as a catalyst in Nina’s arrested development and, by articulating the differences between the black and white swans, acknowledges the split operating within her. Nina, forced to confront her repressed sexuality, uses this split, manifested in the polarity of The Swan Queen, as a creative solution to separating these opposing aspects of her personality. Nina is oblivious to her defense mechanism and thus becomes increasingly frightened and anxious when she encounters her rejected self in the form of a projection carried by another ballerina. Her failure to integrate her sexuality into her ego – her conscious awareness of herself – leads to Nina’s unconscious externalisation of her sexuality and the formation of a complex and pivotal relationship with one of her peers, Lily (Mila Kunis). Lily, markedly different from Nina in both temperament and constitution, threatens Nina’s tenuous grasp of The Swan Queen as she ably embodies The Black Swan in a way that Nina cannot. Throughout the film, Lily’s motivations are suggested to be suspect and Nina, fearful of being replaced, becomes fascinated by and attracted to her rival. In many ways, it is Nina’s attraction to Lily, more than her attraction to Leroy, which compels her to separate from her mother. Onto Lily, Nina projects her rejected self, the sexuality she dare not experience; in fact, it is difficult to determine anything about Lily’s real character, so absolute is Nina’s projection. Nina’s absolutism in this instance is indicative of ‘black and white’ thinking, a common characteristic in borderline personalities. Nina exhibits a number of traits indicative of Borderline Personality Disorder, most notably her episodes of idealisation and devaluation and her unstable sense of identity.
The psychological meltdown around which Black Swan is based is lent authenticity by the introduction and accurate depiction of a variety of psychological conditions and principles. Darren Aronofsky constructs a realistic crisis of identity by repeatedly illustrating and explaining Nina’s psychological frailty. The film’s exploration of Nina’s perfectionism, her defining trait, works in both the director’s critique of professional ballet and in his examination of a significant personality disorder. Ultimately, Black Swan is an accurate and interesting rendering of a crisis of identity and suggests to the viewer that, once the established defenses of the traumatised and infantilised protagonist are challenged by the unrelenting pressure of the external world or by a disturbed unconscious, a breakdown is likely. The final scene in the film, in particular, illustrates the consequences of her unhealthy attachment to her mother, and dramatically demonstrates its tragic consequences.
Zachary Boren is the Film Co-ordinator for the British Independent Film Awards and contributes to the Raindance Film Festival.