Black Swan is a 2010 psychological thriller directed by Darren Aronofsky and written by Mark Heyman, John McLaughlin, and Andres Heinz, based on an original story by Heinz. It stars Natalie Portman in an Oscar-winning performance as ballerina Nina Sayers, with Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, Barbara Hershey, and Winona Ryder.
The story, with its overarching themes of duality, dualism, and the dialectical relationship between opposites, is strongly influenced by Dostoyevsky‘s novella, The Double. Nina’s double is her dialectical opposite, Lily (Kunis); and just as the protagonist in Dostoyevsky’s story is paranoid about his double’s attempts to take over his life, so does Nina have persecutory anxiety about Lily supposedly scheming to take the role of Swan Queen away from her.
Here are some quotes from the film:
Nina (Portman): I came to ask for the part.
Thomas (Cassel): The truth is when I look at you all I see is the white swan. Yes, you’re beautiful, fearful, and fragile. Ideal casting. But the black swan? It’s a hard fucking job to dance both.
Nina: I can dance the black swan, too.
Thomas: Really? In four years, every time you dance I see you obsessed getting each and every move perfectly right, but I never see you lose yourself. Ever! All that discipline for what?
Nina: [whispers] I just want to be perfect.
Nina: I want to be perfect.
Thomas: [scoffs] Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go. Surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience. Transcendence! Very few have it in them.
Nina: I think I do have it in me.
Nina: Beth! I’m so sorry to hear you’re leaving the company.
Beth (Ryder): What did you do to get this role? [about Thomas] He always said you were such a frigid little girl. What did you do to change his mind? Did you suck his cock?
Nina: Not all of us have to.
Beth: [chuckles] You fucking whore! You’re a fucking little whore!
Thomas: You could be brilliant, but you’re a coward.
Nina: I’m sorry.
Thomas: [yelling] Now stop saying that! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Stop being so fucking weak!
“That was me seducing you. It needs to be the other way around.” –Thomas, to Nina
Lily (Kunis): [about Beth] I can’t believe he calls her that. It’s so gross.
Nina: I think it’s sweet.
Lily: Little princess? He probably calls every girl that.
Nina: No way! That’s just for Beth.
Lily: I bet he’ll be calling you little princess any day now.
Nina: I don’t know about that.
Lily: Sure he will. You just got to let him lick your pussy.
Erica (Hershey): What happened to my sweet girl?
Nina: She’s gone!
Nina: You put something in my drink.
Nina: And then you just took off in the morning?
Lily: In the morning?
Nina: Yeah, you slept over.
Lily: Um, no. Unless your name is Tom and you got a dick.
Nina: But we…
Lily: But we what, Nina? [pauses] Wait, did you have some sort of lezzy wet dream about me?
Nina: [whispers] Stop it.
Lily: Oh my God. Oh my God! You did! You fantasized about me!
Nina: Shut up!
Lily: [gasps] Was I good?
Erica: This role’s destroying you. [Nina violently pushes Erica aside]
Erica: No! Please! You’re not well!
Nina: [yelling] Let go of me!
Erica: You can’t handle this!
Nina: I can’t? I’m the Swan Queen, you’re the one who never left the corps!
“I felt it. Perfect. It was perfect.” –Nina
One visual cue to take note of throughout the film is the preponderance of blacks, whites, and greys, in clothing especially, but also in interior designs. Black and white have the traditional symbolism of, respectively, evil and good, sin and innocence, etc. Grey, as a mixture of black and white, can thus be seen as an integration, or a sublation, of the black and white thesis/antithesis.
Nina, the “sweet girl,” wears mostly white clothes, as well as her lightest of light pink coat and light-grey track pants. As she gradually loses her innocence over the course of the film, she’ll be wearing darker, greyer clothing until she’s fully transformed into the Black Swan, the evil twin, as it were, of the White Swan. Appropriately, at the beginning of the film, she dreams of dancing as the White Swan; that she’s being eyed predatorily by Rothbart, the evil owl-like sorcerer, already shows her repressed sexuality, for deep down in her unconscious, she wants to be seduced.
Nina’s mother, Erica, is always in black, except for an outfit that’s a combination of black and dark grey, worn once in the middle of the film–black enough. We’ll see the significance of these black clothes on Erica later.
Erica seems to be a generally good mother, though she is in many ways frustrating for Nina, too. Erica’s overprotectiveness and lack of respect for her daughter’s privacy force Nina to take on an exclusively “sweet girl” persona…a white swan. With Erica’s domineering overprotectiveness comes a repression and disavowal of Nina’s sexuality.
This disavowal of her sexuality comes in the form of projection. Nina tends to see people in black clothes, sometimes young women with Nina’s hallucinated face superimposed on them, as in one example in the subway station. The sexual brazenness she sees in some of these black-clothed people (Lily, and in particular, a lecherous old man on the subway making obscene gestures at her) is really a sexuality inside herself that she doesn’t want to accept. She’s the white swan “sweet girl,” so she projects that sexuality onto others through her hallucinations. An important question here is: where do we draw the line between what she actually sees and what she hallucinates? (I suspect that she hallucinates a lot more often than the times she obviously does.)
Thomas, the artistic director of her ballet company, wants to do a production of Swan Lake in which the same dancer will play both the white and black swans. This would be a challenge for any dancer, but it is especially so for Nina, who will have to integrate her white side with her disavowed, forbidden black side. She will have to discover some very dark shadows inside herself.
Naturally, as she does this uncovering, this integrating of white and black, she’ll experience conflict and resistance. Part of her must do this integrating to be worthy of dancing the part, and part of her will be terrified of discovering the dark sexuality hidden inside herself, a sexuality her mother forbids her to express, as we’ll soon see. Projecting that sexuality onto others, certain black-clothed others in particular, will achieve this purpose…for a while…
Thomas, as an agent of this integration of black and white, accordingly wears combinations of black, grey, and white. He makes demands on Nina to open up sexually, to loosen up on her meticulous, perfectionistic ballet technique in order to dance more freely as the uninhibited Black Swan. She mustn’t be all Apollonian discipline; she must also be Dionysian passion and fire. Nina can’t adjust at first, though her doppelgänger Lily, with her pornographic mouth and frank sexuality, can do it naturally, effortlessly. Lily usually wears black clothes; she even has a tattoo of black wings on her back.
Look at the two girls’ four-letter names, Nina and Lily. They have paralleled repeats of consonants, ls and ns, letters close to each other in the alphabetic sequence; both names’ second letter is an i, and both names end with an a or a y, two vowels at almost opposite ends of each other in the alphabet. Lily only seems to be Nina’s polar opposite, but she’s actually her dialectical opposite, for in the sublation of contraries, there is a unity. Nina does have Lily’s wild sexuality: it’s just repressed and disavowed, for reasons I’ll speculate about later.
Nina’s unwillingness to learn how to dance the Black Swan with the free sexuality that Thomas wants represents what Wilfred Bion called -K, a negation of the desire to gain knowledge (K) by linking between oneself and others (Bion, p. 47ff.). All those external stimuli that arouse sexual feelings are rejected by Nina, like Bion‘s beta elements: raw, external sensory data that aren’t processed in the mind or turned into thoughts.
Many consider this film an allegory of the agony one feels in the search to attain artistic perfection. Nina certainly is striving, to the point of self-destructiveness (as her predecessor, Beth, has), to be the perfect ballerina; but her quest isn’t so much about dancing perfectly as it is about becoming someone else–actually, being her True Self (in DW Winnicott‘s sense of the term).
Black Swan is Nina’s journey towards self-knowledge, and this journey is terrifying for her because it means revealing feelings she is ashamed of–her repressed sexuality, which is, to at least a great degree, lesbian.
Recall “how pink! So pretty” that grapefruit half is that Nina’s mom serves her for breakfast at the beginning of the film. At this early point in the story, only the unconscious mind of that “sweet girl” would be able to see the vulva symbolism of the pink inside of the grapefruit.
When Thomas awakens her sexuality with that hard kiss he gives her in his office (which she rejects by biting him), then later he invites her to his home at night for a drink–and he talks about sex with her–we assume he is being the stereotypical male lecher trying to take advantage of a pretty young woman, offering her career advancement in exchange for a sexual favour. Actually, though, he doesn’t take her to bed. He’d have her masturbate in her home instead.
This awakening to self-knowledge (Bion’s K) is, so to speak, the ‘Biblical kind of knowing,’ and Nina is conflicted about it. She tries masturbating the next morning, but she sees her mother sleeping in a chair by her bed. This would seem to be yet another example of her mother not respecting her boundaries and invading her privacy. I suspect, however, that this is actually another of Nina’s many hallucinations, a convenient excuse to stop exploring her sexuality, for Erica would never approve of it.
It’s interesting that we never learn of Nina’s father–he’s not mentioned even once, at any time in the film. There’s a good possibility that Erica has raised Nina all the way, or almost all the way, from infancy; perhaps a man got Erica pregnant and abandoned her, forcing her to give up on her dreams of being a ballerina herself, and causing her to be overprotective of Nina for fear of her being seduced, knocked up, and thrown over in the same way. Recall Erica’s warning to Nina about Thomas and his “reputation” with women: “I just don’t want you to make the same mistake I did.” Whatever the cause of her repressions of Nina, Erica has been, essentially, Nina’s one conduit to knowledge of the world, having stifled the growth of Nina’s sexuality.
Bion’s theory of thinking and learning is based on developments of Melanie Klein‘s notion of projective identification, which involves projecting feelings and ideas into another to the point of making the other feel and think those feelings and thoughts. A baby isn’t able to think and process external sensory stimuli (Bion’s ‘beta elements’) for himself, so he must expel and project the distressing ones, pushing them into his mother, who as a “good enough mother” can contain them, process them in maternal reverie, and return them to her baby in a form acceptable to him, pacifying him. Erica, I suspect, didn’t sufficiently contain baby Nina’s anxieties and frustrations, which, instead of being pacified, became a “nameless dread“; hence, her current pathologies.
Object relations theorists like Klein wrote of how we all make internalized objects of our early caregivers, i.e., our parents. These internal objects reside in our minds like ghosts in, so to speak, the haunted houses of our heads; they are homunculi in us. In fatherless Nina’s case, there is only one foundational object introjected into her mind: Erica.
Sometimes, Erica is the good mother, caring for Nina and protecting her (or at least trying to) from external dangers (sexually predatory men) and internal ones (Nina’s scratching and self-injuries). Of course, Erica carries that protection way too far, and far too often, making her into the bad mother.
Since Black Swan is a movie about duality, it’s important to note this good/bad mother duality in Erica, which Nina has internalized. Erica’s repression of Nina’s sexuality, infantilizing her (Nina, on two occasions, calls Erica “Mommy”), is another big part of the bad mother that frustrates Nina.
This frustration results in the defence mechanism of splitting into absolute good (white swan) and absolute bad (black swan). Thomas’s insistence that Nina dance both black and white swans necessitates an integration that threatens her ego defences, causing her psychotic break with reality.
Nina would resist this knowing (-K) of the integration of white and black; she’d rather be all-white, so all impulses and excitations (beta elements) luring her towards the black (which she nonetheless must accept if she’s to succeed in Thomas’s production) are frightening things she must eject from herself and project onto others (i.e., Lily).
The problem is that if Nina keeps rejecting these beta elements over time, never processing these taboo thoughts or allowing them to settle in her mind as alpha elements, the rejected beta elements will accumulate and become what Bion called bizarre objects, hallucinatory projections of herself (e.g., those talking pictures in Erica’s room). If Nina doesn’t accept her dark side, she’ll go mad.
I’ve mentioned Nina’s lesbian tendencies; recall the gossiping dancers who note her staring at Veronica. Then there’s Nina’s obsession with black-clothed Lily, and that notorious sex scene in which Lily performs cunnilingus on Nina. She’s not only hallucinated the entire lovemaking, but also superimposed her own face on lip-smacking Lily’s. Nina is constantly projecting her inner dark side.
According to classical psychoanalytic theory, children go through an Oedipal phase, usually loving and desiring the opposite-sex parent and hating the same-sex parent, wishing to remove this latter one out of jealousy. These children normally outgrow this phase and develop heterosexual feelings for people outside the family. Some people have a negative Oedipus complex, a homosexual version; again, in the best of circumstances, they’ll outgrow it and have gay relationships outside the family.
In Nina’s case, however, a father with whom she can pass through an Oedipal phase is out of the question. She is in no Oedipal love triangle, only a dyad. All she has is her mother–the good mother who serves her a “pink” and “pretty,” vulva-like grapefruit, and the black-clothed bad mother who disapproves of her ever being involved with boys.
Some bloggers have speculated that Erica has sexually abused Nina, thus causing her pathologies. It’s an interesting, even compelling, theory; but just as Freud downplayed and modified his seduction theory to accommodate what he considered to be the much more universal Oedipus complex, so must I respectfully disagree with those bloggers.
Though Erica’s relationship with Nina is inappropriately close, the daughter clearly being an extension of her mother’s will, I don’t see sufficient evidence of even implied sexual abuse. Furthermore, such a theory doesn’t harmonize with the symbolism of Nina as the “sweet girl,” the innocent, virginal white swan. The trauma of child sexual abuse is centred around a forceful robbing of the child’s innocence. On the contrary with Nina, it’s her innocence that Erica is so preoccupied with preserving.
I argue, instead, that Nina’s psychopathology is based on a combination of sexual repression (from Erica the bad mother) and an unresolved, repressed negative Oedipus complex (Erica the all-too-good mother). The dialectical relationship between these polar opposites is like the biting head and bitten tail of the ouroboros that I’ve used so many times before to represent the unity of opposites, how one phases into the other.
Bion elaborated on the Oedipus myth by focusing on how reluctant Tiresias was to tell the incestuous, patricidal Theban king that it was he who killed his father Laius (Bion, p. 45ff.). This reluctance to impart or acquire knowledge (-K) is seen in Nina’s not wanting to come to terms with her unconscious Oedipal feelings for her mother.
One way of avoiding those feelings, as we’ve seen, is through projection, that is, to project the internalized object of Nina’s mother onto Lily. In the lesbian sex scene fantasy, Nina has an acceptable sexual substitute for Erica in Lily; Nina has displaced her desire onto an object outside her family. Another way for Nina to disavow her negative Oedipus complex is through reaction formation, i.e., through being hostile to her mother (even physically hurting her), to mask her unconscious desire for her.
Indeed, the juxtaposition of Nina’s barring Erica’s entry into her bedroom with her imagined lovemaking with Lily represents the basic schizoid position (p. 8ff.) that WRD Fairbairn wrote about. In Nina’s relationship with Erica on the one hand, and with Lily on the other, we see Fairbairn‘s Anti-libidinal Ego (Nina) and Rejecting Object (Erica), and the Libidinal Ego (Nina) and the Exciting Object (Lily). What we don’t see is the Central Ego (Nina) with the Ideal Object (anyone), this last object being ‘ideal’ because a real person in the external world is ideally who one should have a relationship with.
Lily, the Exciting Object of Nina’s libidinal desires, isn’t in the room; she’s only an internalized object in Nina’s mind. Even her mother, as the despised, unwanted object rejected by Nina’s ‘anti-libidinal’ feelings, isn’t wholly the bad mother that Nina imagines her to be: Erica’s only partly a bad mother, but also partly a good mother. Nina must come to grips with this duality.
Nonetheless, in order to prevent herself from knowing (-K) about her Oedipal desires, Nina must imagine Erica to be all bad, and must reject her even when she’s trying to do good (i.e., help Nina when she’s obviously going mad, and stop her self-injuries). Hence, Nina’s schizoid position–or as Klein called it, the paranoid-schizoid position. In Nina’s splitting of the internal object into absolute bad (this is Lily now, for Nina imagines her to be trying to steal her role as Swan Queen) and absolute good (Erica, the good side of whom is ignored, physically attacked, and treated derisively: “I’m the Swan Queen! You’re the one who never left the corps!”), she is about to get very paranoid.
Though Nina has struggled to avoid the integration of white and black, and thus to know herself (-K), she has also, in her quest to perfect the role of Swan Queen, been forced to approach that self-knowledge (K). Nonetheless, just as Oedipus’ quest for knowledge of the truth destroyed him (as Tiresias warned him it would), so is Nina’s quest destroying her. After all, who would want to have conscious knowledge that he or she had incestuous desires for his or her mother?
In her drive to attain perfection, her ballerina ideal, Nina sees herself in the mirror and hallucinates that her reflection is moving in ways that she herself is not. This is Lacan‘s mirror, in which one’s clumsy self, unable to match the perceived perfection in the reflection, is alienated from that graceful image.
On the one hand, Nina is alienated from herself when she sees her reflection, but when she faces other people–as if they were her mirror reflection–she often sees herself (as a result of projective and introjective identification). These hallucinations make this normally graceful ballerina as clumsy as those psychologically fragmented infants seeing themselves in Lacan’s mirror for the first time.
Nina thus in a larger sense has many doppelgängers: her main one is Lily, of course, but there are also the pairs of Nina/Erica, Nina/Beth, Nina/Veronica, and ultimately, Nina White/Nina Black. The film expresses the universal idea that the self, or subject, is seen in the other, or object, and vice versa. Lacan’s mirror reflects the self/other dialectic.
Though Nina’s white and black sides are integrating, she’s still conflicted about it, and she’s still resisting the integration. She projects her black onto Lily and Erica, and she projects in the forms of vomiting into toilets, self-injury, and pulling a hallucinated black feather out of her back.
Though Erica is as annoyingly overprotective as always, she–as the good mother–is justified in trying to intervene when she can see that Nina is clearly going insane. In her bedroom, after slamming the door on Erica’s fingers, Nina hallucinates that her legs have transformed into those of a swan’s, bending backwards. Though symbolically this could be seen as a positive, in that she’s transforming into the Black Swan and thus mastering the role, it also represents, apart from her obvious psychotic break with reality, a fear of never being able to dance again (i.e., broken legs).
Her suffering from the paranoid-schizoid position is at its peak when she rushes over to the ballet company to ensure that she, and not (she imagines) usurping Lily, will perform as the Swan Queen.
During her performance as the White Swan, she hallucinates seeing her own face on one of the heads of the corps de ballet, giving her a jolt and causing her male dancing partner to drop her onstage. Weeping as she returns to her dressing room, she hallucinates seeing Lily get ready to play the Black Swan, when of course she’s really seeing a projection of her black half. Thinking she’s stabbed Lily with a piece of broken glass from a mirror, she’s actually stabbed herself in the gut with it.
She goes back onstage as the Black Swan, fully transformed. No longer is she in conflict about it; she fully accepts and embraces her dark side. She even hallucinates seeing her arms turn into black wings, and she grins at the transformation. Never does she notice her stab wound; nor does the audience, who loves her performance.
She goes offstage and kisses Thomas hard on the mouth, as if she were Lily. Finally, she is seducing him, instead of the other way around. He, just old enough to be her father, provides her with a symbolic positive Oedipal object, awakening her hitherto repressed heterosexual side, which was also awakened earlier in the dance club scene, with those young men, “Tom and Jerry.”
Back in her change room, Nina must become the White Swan again; not just for the sake of the ballet, but because she can be neither only black, nor only white. Lily…dressed in an all white ballet outfit!…appears at her door to congratulate her on her superb dancing. Nina realizes she never stabbed Lily.
Pulling out a shard of mirror glass from her bleeding gut, Nina weeps. Her persecutor has never been Lily, nor has she even been Erica in her bad mother mode. Nina’s persecutor has been herself the whole time, as the bad internal object of her mother.
Fully integrated now, Nina no longer sees people in terms of all good or all bad, for she understands how illusory her projections are. Lily is in white, but still brazenly sexual and using four-letter words, for she never was “all black.” Nina has merely imagined her to be that way…as she has imagined her mother to be.
Nina weeps copious tears as she prepares to go back onstage as the White Swan (presumably having bandaged her stomach as best she can), for she has switched from the paranoid-schizoid position to the depressive position. By stabbing herself, Nina was trying to stab the bad mother object inside herself, something projected onto Lily. Now she fears having killed her internal mother object, which means also killing herself. Thus sobbing Nina feels depressive, rather than persecutory, anxiety.
Back onstage, she has a sorrowful face as she dances in the finale, as brilliantly as always. Red is visible on her belly, the blood gushing out of a vulva-like wound suggesting the symbolic breaking of her hymen, her loss of virginity and innocence.
Is her mother–the good mother–watching her in the audience, tearfully moved by her performance, or is Nina just imagining her there, as part of her depressive wish for reparation with Erica? Either way, though she needs to be rushed to hospital, she is perfect…not just from a great performance, but perfect in that she’s complete–not half a woman, but both white and black.