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Monday, December 28, 2020

Repression and Duality of the Self: The Horrors of ‘Black Swan’ [Unveiling The Mind]

Welcome to Unveiling The Mind. This bi-monthly column explores psychological horror and representations of mental illness within the genre.

Coming into my first viewing of Black Swan in 2010, I had no idea what I was about to see. At the time, I knew little of Darren Aronofsky‘s work. I had seen Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, and while I found myself intrigued with the latter, I wasn’t all that blown away by the former. But Black Swan grabbed my attention. 

Much of my taste in horror up until that point involved slashers, monsters, ghosts, and demons; I had seen psychological horror, but my passion for the subgenre had not kicked off yet. It’s fair to say that Black Swan played a big role in guiding me towards that direction, for I was intrigued by the spiraling mental descent of Natalie Portman’s character Nina. 

For Black Swan’s 10th anniversary, I present an analysis of Nina’s horrifying journey – how the film establishes her character and the narrative techniques it uses to explore her mind state. 

Please note this article will contain spoilers.

A brief synopsis of the film: Nina is a young ballet dancer in an upscale New York City ballet company. At the beginning of the company’s season, it is announced by Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the company’s artistic director, that he will be putting on a new rendition of the iconic Swan Lake – where a single female lead will play both the White and Black Swan. One thing leads to another and Nina gets the part, but though being in the spotlight has its perks, she soon comes to discover that the pressure of such a role comes with more struggle than she could have ever imagined. 

The core horror of Black Swan comes from that of Nina’s deteriorating mental state; from the pressures put on her by her mother, Thomas, and the role, she strives to let go of the control that weighs her down. Aronofsky goes about displaying Nina’s psyche through scenes of rigorous obsession and hallucinations she endures. Each hardship reflects the struggle she faces to not only master such a grand role, but to also embrace her being and let go of control.

From the start, Nina is framed in an innocent light. Her room is pink with stuffed animals and she has a somewhat child-like relationship with her mother (Barbara Hershey). She doesn’t speak up much and primarily represses strong emotion when it comes to conflict. She is also a tad naïve, which further plays into her innocence. When she goes to initially talk to Thomas for the role of Swan Queen, she puts on nice lipstick and says how she has learned the part. Yet, as she’s talking, Thomas – and the audience for that matter – notice how timid she is. 

There’s never an explanation as to why Nina is this way; that said, one may be able to connect the dots when it comes to scenes between her and her mother. The viewer learns that Nina’s mother was once a dancer too, but when she became pregnant with Nina, she gave up her career. In each scene where the two are together, the mother is always domineering. She is either picking Nina’s life apart or overly coddling her. Early in the film the audience is shown a small rash on Nina’s back; this has to do with a nervous tick she has developed where she scratches herself. When the mother finds that the rash has gotten worse, she strips Nina down to her underwear and pulls her into the bathroom to cut her nails. With this level of aggressive parenting, one could understand why Nina has such a tense and shy personality. 

But Nina is not entirely pure of heart. Upon walking into the dressing room of the company’s lead star, she pickpockets one of her lipsticks (the one she wears for Thomas). Behind all the sweetness and charm, there is something else there.

This character setup is the foundation for which Aronofsky and the screenwriters use to bombard Nina with conflict. Upon winning the Swan Queen role, her craft and focus are continuously questioned and challenged. Thomas makes a comment about how her movements are too controlled – and as the Black Swan – she needs to move more freely. He makes remarks about the Black Swan being someone who can exude sensuality. Throughout the film, Nina strives to continuously push herself and tap into the Black Swan, yet each effort is short of reaching the evocative spirit of the character.

Now while much of this may come off as a tortured artist sort of narrative, that isn’t what the film is going for. That theme is certainly present, as well as the struggles that young female performers may face when working in entertainment. But a big key theme in Black Swan is repression – a concept the film explores through Nina’s relationships and practice of the Black Swan dance. For as she continues to practice the role, she begins to endure nightmarish hallucinations. 

Some inspiration for the film comes in the form of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Double, a narrative that involves a man discovering he has a doppelgänger. In a manner, one could view Swan Lake as a story that involves doubles – given the dynamic between the White and Black Swan counterparts. The doppelgänger concept is one of Black Swan’s biggest story elements. 

Through her practice to become the Black Swan, Nina begins to slowly tap into her repressed feelings. The hallucinations she sees of herself – whether dressed in black or acting in some menacing factor – are meant to represent the urges she keeps buried. The desire to be more carefree. A quality she wants to live by but doesn’t express out of fear of losing control. As she puts it to Thomas at one point, she wants to be perfect. So for as much as she wants to be perfect, there is also an itch to let go of that perfection – a clash of desires that does not fare too well for her. 

Over time not only does Nina’s rash on her back worsen, but she also starts imagining gruesome wounds. One scene shows her pulling at her finger, as if there is some sort of pain taking place. When she’s in the bathroom later, she sees the finger is somewhat damaged; upon pulling at the skin around the nail, she tears a long strip of flesh from the nail down to her hand. But the wound is not real. 

The Nina duplicates serve to taunt her, hinting at something darker that exists within. They work to get under her skin by either appearing in unsettling ways or being part of some lurid fantasy – one example being when Nina comes across a duplicate stripping off her clothes and readying herself to have sex with Thomas. In these moments, Nina panics, running away to catch her breath and find some ground in the real world. There are more violent hallucinations that overtake her as well, with one involving a scene where she watches a former dancer stab herself, for Nina to then run out of the room and find she’s holding a bloody weapon. 

As the pressure surrounding the performance builds up, Nina’s grasp on reality weakens. However, the panic shifts into a whole new gear once Lilly (Mila Kunis) becomes a greater presence in her life. 

Lilly is a foil to Nina. Unlike Nina, Lilly is more outspoken, takes more of the lead in her social interactions, and has a chill, not give a shit attitude. She gives off a flirtatious vibe that contrasts with Nina’s awkwardness with other men. Lilly is kept at a distance at first; the camera will slip into brief moments of her talking to someone or dancing, but doesn’t give too much attention outside of some glances Nina sends her way.

Eventually the two do connect and Lilly invites Nina out. The two share drinks, Nina does some drugs, and they go dancing. The evening ends with the two returning to Nina’s to make out and Lilly goes down on her (all before Nina sees Lilly transform into another one of her duplicates). It is revealed shortly after that scene that Nina and Lilly did not make out or do anything sexual. Nina then begins to grow suspicious of Lilly, believing that she may be trying to steal the role of Swan Queen. Seeing Lilly practicing for the role with Thomas intensifies her anxieties. 

Towards the end of the film, as Nina has become more aggressive with her mother, she undergoes a brief physical transformation, her legs inverting into the shape of swan legs. This transformation is in-line with another hallucination that Nina has been experiencing throughout the film – that of becoming a swan. The rash on her back begins to develop a swan-like flesh around it; overtime, this flesh spreads to other parts of her body. She even finds a small black feather sprouting out of her. These moments of transformation provide hints of what is to come in the film’s final act.

For all the struggle that Nina goes through, the conclusion to Black Swan is somewhat uplifting(?). Though she has been under so much mental and emotional torment, Nina comes to embrace her whole being, her psychological journey coming to a marvelous, heartbreaking finish.

As Nina heads to the company for the opening of Swan Lake, determined to do her best, her head is not in the most stable place. She takes to the stage as the White Swan, giving an excellent performance until, in her state of nervousness, her fellow dancer drops her during the act. She recovers and finishes the segment, but the mistake flushes her with embarrassment. She returns to her dressing room, knowing that the Black Swan portion of the show is about to start, and finds Lilly in her chair. The two fight and Nina stabs her with a shard of glass. This is the final step needed for Nina’s transformation to complete.

Entering the stage as the Black Swan, she gives a dazzling performance. As she dances, her body undergoes a massive transformation; her black dress morphs into a body of black feathers, her arms growing into giant wings. As her dance concludes, the room stands up and roars in applause. She has mastered the Black Swan.

Nina returns to her room and shuts the door, panicking as to what to do about Lilly. Then there’s a knock at the door – and it’s Lilly. Nina checks the bathroom where she thought she left Lilly’s body to find nothing. Upon looking at the broken mirror near her, she realizes that the person she stabbed is herself. And in poetic irony, she takes to the stage for her final part where her character dies. As she stands atop a structure, looking down to the stage and into the crowd, she jumps and embraces the moment. She lies down as the room explodes again with applause. Thomas and all the dancers run over to congratulate her, but then they notice she is gushing blood. As the screen fades to white, the crowd still applauding and those around Nina frantic, she says that the performance was perfect.

From the moment the viewer meets Nina, they know her goal is to be the Swan Queen and give a solid performance – and damn is she astounding. There’s much to find in Black Swan’s conclusion that is tragic; the hell this young woman endured, from the pressures of the role to the people around her who continued to burden her. But against all the odds, she pushes through and achieves her dream. That said, even in her success, I feel Black Swan is more of a grim experience. Nina’s repression of herself is brutal to witness at times. Her desperation to be perfect and to excel at her craft are admirable, but they are also drives that end up devastating her psyche.  

Black Swan was one of the first films I ever saw wherein, while creepy visuals were present, the true horror was that of the character’s mind. The story has a consistent rhythm of anxiety; as Nina pushes herself and strives to keep everything together, the viewer is present in worrying for her. Portman’s acting is superb throughout, being a key factor in selling Nina’s declining mental state (as well as providing some chilling moments). In its exploration of duality and repression, Black Swan stands a decade later as a thrilling work of psychological horror.


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