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Black Swan

August Film Series
Sponsored by the Houston Psychoanalytic Society and the Jung Center

            BLACK SWAN

Commentary by Donna R. Copeland, PhD

            Not only did Natalie Portman receive the best actress award for Black Swan at the 2011 Oscars, the movie was nominated for best picture, director (Darren Aronofsky), cinematography (Matthew Libatique), and editing (Andrew Weisblulm).  it accumulated additional awards and nominations from numerous other associations around the world, but was somewhat controversial in its pairing of a highly regarded art form with what some perceived as elements from the horror film genre.  Yet, I doubt many mental health professionals would think it so out of line in terms of reality.  I'm reminded of my dissertation when I collected Rorschach and TAT responses from psychotic patients.  My outside reader from the English Department was incredulous when he read the "craziness" of the responses, and so he thought that I had made them up!  In a similar vein, I think Black Swam provides an excellent example of the power of art and creativity to shock the general public, in this case by illustrating the depths of personality and emotion that are tapped in an artist who aspires to achieve perfection in her work.

            Tonight, I'd like to address the psychological aspects of Black Swan in terms of:  1) a dancer's passion for the art and technique of dance; 2) her striving for perfection while unsure of her abilities, compromising self-esteem; 3) her desperate but puzzled desire to please a seductive father figure; and 4) her conflicts with an over-zealous mother who floods her with mixed messages.  Then, I'll talk briefly about the concept of narcissism, and what we might conclude about the state of Nina's mind.

            Several of the opening scenes clue us in on all these points:  That is, you'll remember the dream in the beginning of the film, which reflects Nina's fantasies, the immediate images of mirrors and doubles, competitiveness in comparing herself with another dancer on the train--even the poster image of Beth in front of Lincoln Center, a too close relationship with her mother, and, finally, Thomas' comments to the dancers about the ballet they will be performing, wherein the swan "in death, finds freedom."

Passion/Obsession for Ballet

Clearly, Nina is passionate about dancing; it consumes her every waking hour.  She does little and thinks little about anything else, as far as we can see.  And it's almost a given that a true artist is obsessed with his/her work.  Few of the masterpieces we know were created nonchalantly by the artist.  Some of the  most interesting biographies contain stories about an artist's quest for perfection in creation.  Even Jackson Pollok--although he seemingly threw paint onto canvas--actually spent most of his time and thought devoted to his art.

            But Nina's obsession with dance and the pursuit of perfection does seem to go beyond the usual artistic strivings, perhaps to fill up the emptiness of an isolated existence, perhaps to fulfill her mother's dreams.  Even after the artistic director in the film, Thomas Leroy, assures Nina that her technique is already perfect, that what she needs to do now is let go of herself.  But Nina continues to "work" on her technique, and it takes her a long time to really comprehend what he means when he tries to explain to her about the emotional aspects of dance.  So we see that, in the beginning, Nina's quest for perfection is entirely focused on technique in terms of body positioning and movement; she doesn't yet truly relate to the emotional experience of dancing and dancing as a sexual being.  In order to do that, she must find the dark side of herself, something that is alien to her, as she has  been brought up to remain a child, meek and acquiescent, and certainly not to explore too far afield.  In Jungian terms, she must explore her shadow and leave the puella behind.  She must become more like Lilly who, in many respects represents Nina's shadow (David Ross,, 2/25/11)

            Nina needs her dark side, her shadow, not only to be the black swan, but more importantly to become a mature woman.  Although, in so doing, there is the threat that it will overtake her completely.  As Colin Covert noted in the Minneapolis Star Tribune:  "Obsessive self-discipline has perhaps protected her from descending into madness.  Now, she must let go of that protection in order to achieve her dream: (Colin Covet, Minneapolis Star Tribune, 12/10/10).  Recall the scene in which Nina mutilates a pair of ballet shoes in order to make them flexible.  This can be seen as a metaphor for what she has to do to herself to achieve the perfection she is seeking (Maryann Johanson, flick filosopher,, 2/7/11).

Self-esteem Compromised by 1) an Obsession to Achieve Perfection and 2) Mother's Depression

            Partly because Nina's interests and experience have been so narrow and her relationships with people so few, her self--esteem and self-confidence are very low.  The pursuit of perfection--an impossible goal--interferes further with self-development.  Her drive for perfection prevents her from getting satisfaction from her accomplishments, a source from which self-esteem is normally derived.

            Another factor contributing to low self-esteem is what appears to me to be the mother's depression.  We don't know the reason for her depression, but we sense that it is a chronic condition.  Nina comes home to find her sobbing at times.  She doesn't appear to be a really happy person.  Is it a lost love?  Is it loss of her own aspirations to be a star ballet dancer?  It would be easy to imagine that she lost the love who got her pregnant and that subsequently she had to give up any idea of a career and become a single mother.  She has perhaps tried to transfer her love of ballet to her painting, but she has clearly clung to those ballet aspirations by experiencing them vicariously through her daughter.  She seems not to possess the characteristics of an optimally attuned mother, containing and metabolizing her own and her daughter's anxieties [Haneke, M. and Wrye, H., Perversion annihilates creativity and love:  A passion for destruction in The Piano Teacher (2001), International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 86:  1205-1212., 2005].

Desire/Puzzlement about Pleasing a Seductive Father Figure.

            Some of the very tense scenes in the movie involve the director interacting with Nina, encouraging her toward self-discovery.  He actually serves to counteract the mother's influence by telling Nina that she is strong (as opposed to weak), that she should fight back rather than be so accepting, and to be an adult sexual being, rather than remain a little girt.  She resists by seeming not to have the slightest idea of what he's talking about.  When he resorts to demonstrating what he means, tension is heightened because he's inched over the boundaries of appropriateness.  Although I wouldn't condone his approach, I can empathize with his frustration with her stubbornness to remain a little girl.  I have to wonder if she would ever have been able to master the black swan role if he had not helped her along in this way.  Not only has Nina's father not been present, she apparently has had little experience with men at all, and little--if any--experience in the kind of mutuality that is key to an intimate relationship.  Nina is attracted to this man, and her hunger for what she has been missing is like a lost person on the dessert encountering water for the first time.  But she can't just drink it in greedily; she's too afraid.  And perhaps that fear is not entirely unfounded.  One wonders what makes Thomas suddenly attracted to Nina when she bites him.  In this, we get a glimpse of the relationships he establishes with his prima ballerinas, and more specifically, we get that from his interactions with Beth.

Conflicts with an Over-Zealous Mother Who Gives Mixed Messages

            Nina's mother is difficult to watch.  Mostly she indulges Nina, and seems not to have any expectations of her except to shine in ballet.  Yet, that is with reservation, as she is still angry with herself for dropping out of ballet to have Nina, and even now, seems to feel competitive with her.  Sometimes when she is comforting her daughter she sounds encouraging at first, but then seems to urge Nina to accept second best, such as saying "Don't work too hard."  Or "Don't you need for me to go with you?"  She implies Nina is weak and cannot stand the pressure.  Mostly she is all sweetness and nice and supportive, BUT she can turn on a dime and become vicious.  (Think about the cake scene.)  Just how vicious she can be we're able to see when she attempts to cancel Nina's appearances.

            In thinking about the mother-daughter relationship, I am reminded of Harriet Wrye's interpretations of Michael Haneke's film, The Piano Teacher (Wrye, Harriet K.  Perversion annihilates creativity and love:  A passion for destruction in Haneke's The Piano Teacher, Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 27:  455-486, 2007).  She observes that the daughter, Erika, serves as her mother's "hated narcissistic extension", which makes it difficult for Erika to separate psychologically.  Nina's mother tries desperately to restrain her daughter from living freely and autonomously.  But about halfway through the film, Nina refuses to be her puppet any longer, realizing that her mother is actually bitter about Nina's accomplishments.  Nina delights in the realization that whereas she has become a star, her mother did not get beyond the corps de ballet.  Wrye's interpretation on the piano teacher's mother is that "maternal passion" is perverted into "envious destructiveness and spoiling", and that could apply to Nina and her mother as well.

            Just as the piano in The Piano Teacher serves as a transitional object used by Erika to separate from her mother, so Nina uses ballet to begin separation from hers.  Overt friction between Nina and her mother only becomes apparent when Nina begins to separate.  The mother's dismay is captured by the line, "What happened to my sweet girl?" to which, Nina emphatically replies:  "She's gone!!!"  Breaking away from the mother's tight bonds allows Nina to soar, leave her puella behind, and master the Black Swan role.

Narcissistic Personality Organization

            Nancy McWilliams (Psychoanalytic Diagnosis, NY:  The Guilford Press, 1994)has noted that those whose personalities are organized around maintaining self-esteem primarily from affirmations coming from outward sources and who have a disproportionate degree of sensitivity to criticism are seen as narcissistic.  Nina puts on an outer mask when she is trying to please others and ignore their aggression toward her, particularly her mother and Thomas.  We know that a narcissistic organization--like many--evolves as a consequence of difficulties in achieving successful differentiation and  eventual separation from primary object relationships.  Frequently, these individuals have been used as narcissistic appendages themselves, just as Nina appears to have been used  by her mother.  Nina seems to be important to her mother more for the function she serves than for who she really is, and Nina has certainly gotten the message that she will get support from her mother only if she cooperates with her mother's narcissistic agenda.   Much of her striving for perfection in ballet can be seen as motivated by her wish to please her mother.  When she gets the starring role, her first thought is to call her mother and tell her.  Certainly, at first, her mother's primary agenda for Nina is that she be a prima ballerina.  Of course, her mother did not anticipate the destructive, competitive feelings her daughter's success would arouse in her later.

            Two primary emotions associated with a narcissistic personality are shame and envy.  Shame in the sense of being seen as less that or lacking in something crucial, and envy in the conviction that another has those qualities.  We sense the shame in Nina when she has not pleased her mother or Thomas.  We see the envy stirred up by the possibility that Lily will please the director more, and be given the swan role.  The defenses of idealization and devaluation--also characteristic of the disorder--are evident in Nina's attempts to adapt to stress and conflict.  Nina idealizes Thomas, ignoring any feelings she has about his criticisms of her, his humiliation of her in front of other dancers, and the brusqueness apparent in his dealing with her.  At the end of the film, her last statement to him of finally achieving perfection is stated with a mixture of pride in pleasing him and of victory, perhaps implying that she has triumphed over him.  Although I hasten to say that we really don't know whether she dies or not.

            It should be noted that ballet itself reinforces narcissism already existing in a dancer:  Mirrors and doubles in the form of alternates and understudies are ubiquitous; performance necessarily involves a false persona.  There are intense competitions around beauty and skill, and selections are more often based on the functionality of the dancer rather than on who she is.  One would have to have a certain degree of narcissism to be a dancer at all.

            But what can we say about Nina's State of Mind?

She is shown to have a number of symptoms that most of us would regard as pathological:
- self-mutilation -- scratching, pulling off skin, which seem to occur in dissociative episodes;
- paranoid thoughts -- toward Lily and even toward strangers she meets in the subway;
- a possible eating disorder -- we see her throw up--or try to--more than once;
- social isolation -- she has no friends, and does not know how to respond when Lily makes overtures--instead, she misinterprets them as Lily wanting to take something from her;
- an inner sense of insufficiency associated with low self-esteem; and
- weak boundaries between reality and fantasy are the night she dreams she is with Lily in her bedroom, her transformation into an actual swan, and opening night when she thinks she has stabbed Lily with broken glass.  Of course, the tragedy in the latter case is that she has actually stabbed herself.

            In the end, do we think that Nina ends up psychotic and kills herself?  I'll leave that for you to answer in  your own minds.

            Black Swan is a disturbing film in many respects.  As one reviewer noted, "...[it] picks at [some] of our deepest anxieties--injury, disfigurement, loss of coveted job, loss of identity, loss of sanity.  In most fright films, danger lurks in the shadow.  Here, it's grinning from a mirror" (Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune, 12/10/10).  It also stretches our minds in figuring out what is supposed to be real; we're not always sure whether the characters' actions are real and which are Nina's projections--which is likewise disturbing.  As disturbing as it is, however, I think it conveys an accurate--although, admittedly, an exaggerated--view of what it means to be an artist, and is beneficial for those of us in other professions to appreciate how much artists must give of themselves to be successful.