Black Swan (2010) And The Power Of Personal Darkness

Ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), central character in Darren Aronofsky's Academy Award-nominated film Black Swan, has clearly disowned a major part of her emotional experience, leading a stunted, child-like existence under the watchful eye of her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey). From the opening scene, staged in the apartment shared by mother and daughter, Director Aronofsky vividly conveys a repressive, infantilized atmosphere.

Nina's bedroom is all pastel colors like a child's room, with a cluster of stuffed animals herding on her bed, and Erica treats her in a cloying, patronizing way as if she actually were a little girl.  Their shared life feels asexual; both Nina and Erica seem brittle and high-strung, with unacknowledged emotions churning beneath the surface.

Erica can't allow Nina to become a fully separate and adult woman, with sexual desires and connections to her peers; this intolerance has no doubt driven Nina to repress so many of her emotions and remain a child. After Nina wins the lead role in a revival of Swan Lake, Erica wants to celebrate with a tacky sheet cake, the kind you might serve for a six-year-old's birthday party; Nina tries to decline a slice and Erica throws a manipulative tantrum, threatening to dump the whole cake into the trash in order to make Nina feel guilty. (The scene recalls another emotionally brittle mother -- Beth in Ordinary People -- shoving her son's french toast down the garbage disposal with a martyred air instead of recognizing that his lack of appetite means he's depressed.) 

The moment Nina submits to the manipulative pressure and allows Erica to spoon-feed her a bite of cake, as if she actually were an infant, Erica resumes her patronizing, saccharine-sweet manner. Mommy's message couldn't be more blatant: if you want me to accept you, you must remain a compliant little girl.

The disavowal of her passionate emotional side -- her "darkness" -- has enfeebled Nina: while she can dance the role of the white swan to perfection, she is unable to access the darkner feelings she needs if she's to bring the black swan to convincing emotional life.  Artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) manipulates Nina, sexually and emotionally, attempting to reach her passionate side; as a result, Nina's disavowed experience begins to break through the perfect but brittle veneer.

When Leroy tries to kiss her, she bites his lip -- our first clue that Nina has some latent aggression.  He subsequently instructs her to masturbate, in order to make contact with her sexual nature, and waking early one morning, she begins to follow his advice, breaking off in terror when she spots Erica asleep in a nearby chair.  Within the repressive world shared by mother and daughter, the expression of sexuality cannot be tolerated; it must be split-off and disowned.

This kind of psychological splitting is never permanent, however, and cannot hold. The disowned and projected part of Nina's experience -- what Jung would have described as her "shadow self" -- starts to show up as a twin, a kind of dark mirror image which she glimpses from the train, along shadowy passageways, etc. 

Lily, a recent addition to the company, also appears to have two different aspects. At first, she behaves in a kindly and supportive manner toward Nina; but later, she becomes fiercely competitive and seeks both to undermine Nina's self-confidence and sabotage her performance in Swan Lake. Director Aronofsky fills the movie with dual images that convey the notion of splitting: white swan/black swan, good Lily/bad Lily, and pristinely perfect, all-in-icy- white Nina, threatened by the sudden emergence of her murderous and sexually potent shadow self.

Black Swan shows how we can be empowered by reclaiming those parts of our experience that we have split off and disowned. The only way Nina can grow the emotional range to dance the black swan is by embracing her passionate sexuality and murderous feelings of jealousy and rage. There's been some debate about which parts of the film are fantasy and which scenes depict actual events, but for me, it doesn't matter. Black Swan realistically portrays mental states and psychological processes you rarely see depicted in a film.

The script, realized through Aronofsky's deft direction and artistic vision, conveys an important message:  It may be frightening and socially disruptive to express our "darkness", but when we strive to be purely "white", we end up psychologically impoverished and afraid, incapable of a truly passionate engagement in our world.