Please note - the following is an in depth film analysis and reveals film plot...
I could anticipate the reactions of fellow moviegoers to The Black Swan as I walked out of the theater. Those who were vocal about it thought it preposterous and laughable. I found it to be a wonderful depiction of a young woman integrating her shadow and ultimately being destroyed by it within a psychologically intense battle ground of the theatre of the ballet. The external manifestations of Nina's delusions, hallucinations were violent and disturbing but I believe to be a perfect mirror into the inner violence, drama, that this type of person might experience in real life. So one has to step back from the imagery and not take it too literally to appreciate the psychology of the film. Is this woman in need of therapy? Of course, but pathologizing her problem will only distance her struggle from our own. And is not some of the world’s greatest art drawn from this very beautiful and brutal mosaic.
The Black Swan is directed by Darren Aronofsky who also directed Requiem for a Dream and Pi, both of which explored the darker aspects of human nature. He continues that journey with The Black Swan but in this film the beauty of the ballet is contrasted with the stark brutal realities of the day to day rituals of the ballerina.
We are confronted immediately with a world of bodily destruction from the daily exercise routines to the purging required to maintain a cachectic frame. In an interview by George Stephanopolous Natalie Portman chides a reviewer who called a ballerina “fat” in a production of the Nutcracker (retrieved from http://www.blogher.com/fat-ballerinas-black-swan-diet-dont-let-tiimes-set-tone) reheating the controversy behind the shadow realm of this beautiful art form. We have the tension of the opposites in the form of the extreme discipline of one’s body and the need for control and its opposite the need to abandon the ego and lose one self. The character of Nina embodies this tension and the risk of going to far in abandoning the ego. But before we discuss the end we must go to the beginning.
The story of swan lake must be appreciated as this is the psychological backdrop of the film. Odette is a beautiful woman by night and by day a white swan, the result of a spell placed on her by the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart. The only way to lift the spell is by her falling in love with a prince. Prince Seigfried out hunting one evening witnesses the beautiful swan queen who is a swan wearing a crown and her transformation from swan to woman and falls in love with her and they spend the night together. The next day she becomes a swan again and he plans to marry her but the sorcerer anticipates this and brings his daughter Odile to meet him making her look like Odette. The prince marries her thinking it is Odette and Odette discovers the betrayal and returns to the lake. The prince discovers what he has done and goes to Odette and asks for forgiveness which she gives him but it is too late. The spell can now never be broken and she decides death is her only escape. In some versions the prince follows Odette to her death by drowning in the lake and in other versions she acts alone.
The ballet Swan Lake becomes for Nina the perfect vas hermeticum within which she will be transformed. Being a swan half the time and a beautiful woman the other half, Nina (Odette) is under a spell cast by the evil sorcerer (Von Rothbart) who originally turned her into a swan. In order for Odette to be freed from the spell (become a whole person) she must fall in love with a prince (Seigfried). Nina's mother is the sorcerer who keeps Nina in the mother realm (swan realm). One is reminded of Rapunzel and the sorceress who keeps Rapunzel in the tower until the prince comes to rescue her. Nina's desire for ballet is the mechanism to work through this enchantment and disengage from this realm and from her mother in the process. Seigfried is the Director who, in his desire for a perfect ballet, tries to push Nina into herself to explore her shadow which is her sexuality, her ambitiousness, her jealousy, anger, rage, all of which is represented by Lilly (Odile) (sounds similar).
The name Nina means "little girl" in Spanish and the meaning beind the name Lilly as the Black Swan, I suspect, it is taken from Odile the name for the Black Swan in the fairy tale and Lilly rhymes with Odile (short i and long e). Also it is the familiar form of Lillith the first woman who rejected Adam because she would not submit to a man. Lillith was considered evil because she was uninhibited and unrestrained so she was banished (to shadow). This is a perfect description of Lilly who is all that Nina is not. It is not surprising that Nina fantasizes making love with Lilly. Nina as a little girl can only grow up when she is able to confront her shadow. Her death is the price we pay when we give ourselves over to the archetypal completely without maintaining hold on the totality of our personality and its roots in the outer world.
I love the fact that the movie begins with the emergence of this "other" that resembles Nina but is in the shadows. Nina sees her in glances at the train station, in the mirror, and it is Nina being pursued by her shadow from the very beginning. So the shadow is her and Lilly interposed and this is done visually throughout the movie. As this shadow self emerges it is sexual, confident, enraged at her mother, jealous, ruthless, and all what Nina is not. The stealing of Beth's (the old ballerina who Nina has replaced) possessions is very interesting. She wanted to be perfect and the stealing of these things, a nail file, and lipstick were a ritualization of acquiring the perfection that she saw in Beth.
On a psychological level the scratching at her self was like cutting which is a way to ward of anxiety and more symbolically a way to get at the self lying beneath the surface only taking it to a literal extreme. It is also a way to feel as though one is regaining control over one's self, just as bolemia and anorexia are similar attempts to hold on to control. But the Director (therapist) is encouraging Nina to let go. This is not something she will accomplish by controlling herself but only by letting go of herself.
So the Director, as the hero, must pull Nina out of the mother realm (the tower) and away from the literal mother. Nina (Odette) must die so the merging of the black swan and white swan can create the transcendent third. The integration of the shadow must result in the death of the ego, the old self, the staus quo. When Nina offers her final words that she is now perfect she has gone from one extreme to another. To be perfect she would need to be the Black Swan and she becomes so. The risk in integration of the shadow is one can be consumed by it and overidentify with it and become psychotic. So Nina goes from one Swan to another but remains a swan, inflated, disconnected from the outer world, relationships, and in the end dies.
We may also see Nina as the puella capitvated by this archetype. As a swan she is in the realm of sublimatio flying high in the sky. The swan is connected to the sky and to water As a woman she is shackled to a brutal discipline The swan is connected to the sky and the water (unconscious) but in order for Nina to become a whole person she must come down to earth (coagulatio). The tension between these two realms will create a third called circulatio, the merging of these two realms. "It ascends to the heavens and descends to the earth and receives the power of above and below. Then you will have the glory of the whole world. Therefore all darkness will flee from you” (Edinger). But she is overtaken by the darkness; darkness did not flee her. She was unable to keep the two realms in tension, the swan realm and the human realm. When she fell to earth it was as a wounded swan as if she had been shot by Seigfried from the very beginning.
It is a perfect image at the very end of the ballet and the movie in which Nina falls to the earth-her swan nature must become personalized, so she can become a person she is intended to be. Flying high above the earth she was ambitious and fantasy-bound so the fall on stage was both the death of the puella, the swan nature, the death of Nina and the integration of the black swan Lilly, who she killed psychologically. In the audience we see the mother who seems to need Nina to complete this transformation, as much as she resisted it in life and perhaps a transformation her mother was never able to complete. We do inherit our parents’ shadow content and Nina seems to sacrifice herself for this transformation.
- Dan Ross, RN