“Black Swan” as a tragedy of growing up and the discovery of sexuality
One of the possible interpretations of the meaning of the film “Black Swan” is the interpretation of the plot as Nina’s path to growing up. “Mom, I’m 28 years old!” Nina exclaims in one of the scenes, but physical age does not mean anything – in fact, the heroine still feels like a small child, her sexuality is completely undeveloped, she does not know what to answer the question Tom “Do you like sex?” Nina’s success in ballet is not so much a sign of her work on herself as an adult, conscious person, but rather the result of following her mother’s instructions. When, finally, Toma demands liberation from Nina, Nina falls into something akin to a transitional age.
Let’s remember how Nina behaves with her mother at the beginning of the film. A mother can safely undress her adult daughter to examine the injury on her shoulder. The mother feeds the girl who is quite capable of making her own breakfast. The mother keeps her daughter under control, even when she is not around, with the help of constant phone calls. Nina’s room looks more like a nursery because of the abundance of plush toys – it seems as if the last rearrangement was here at least twenty years ago. The mother enters her daughter’s bedroom without asking, watches her fall asleep … Is it worth continuing? All this together can be characterized as a delay in Nina’s development – despite her success in ballet, emotionally she is still a child.
Since Nina herself does not make any attempts to grow up, Lily and Tom do it for her. Toma gives her “homework” – to masturbate, while Lily goes further and takes the girl to the club. Lily’s visit is very interesting from the point of view of this interpretation: remember how Lily persuades Nina to go to the club with her, while Nina’s mother tries to keep the girl at home. Such a scene in real life could happen to a schoolgirl, but not to an adult girl. Nina is really going through a transitional age, this is even more vividly manifested when the girls return from the club: Nina brags to her mother about her “exploits”, tries to hurt her as painfully as possible with words, as adolescents usually do during puberty.
Throughout the film, Nina never succeeds in fully experiencing the pleasure of masturbation, just as she cannot completely “let go of herself” for the role of the Black Swan. But in the finale it finally happens – and here we again encounter deep symbolism. Toma constantly insists that Nina – the White Swan – is pure and innocent. In the final scene, blood oozes from an open wound on Nina’s body – this is a kind of metaphor for the first menstruation (growing up) or the loss of innocence. Following this, Nina, dying, says: “I felt perfection.” “Perfection” here can mean an orgasm, a moment of the highest pleasure, which for Nina was embodied not physically, but spiritually – through the art of ballet. Thus, in the finale, Nina parted with both childhood and innocence, finally finding her sexuality.
It should be noted that in the memories of real ballerinas, the topic of sexuality, growing up is not the last place. Ballerinas often feel like “not real” women because of their “childish” figures – thin, light, with undeveloped breasts; both men and women associated with ballet are often bisexual; in addition, a ballerina’s career often negates a woman’s right to create a family, to have a child – thus, one has to choose between “simple female happiness” and the desire to become a star. Although this conflict is not expressed in the film, because there are no candidates for Nina’s heart in the frame, this theme can be traced between the lines.
“Black Swan” – “a poem without a hero”?
A superficial analysis of the film may lead to the conclusion that Nina, carried away by the desired role, loses control over herself and her own personality. This is true, but … was Nina a full-fledged person from the very beginning? Paradoxically, it is the main character of the film “Black Swan” who has the least resistance and will among all its characters. Let’s take a look at the events in timeline.
From the very first frames, we see that Nina’s life does not belong to her. Nina’s mother is a failed ballet star whose career ended with the birth of her daughter. No, the mother does not reproach the heroine at all; instead, she decides to “continue” her career through her own daughter. However, there is nothing exceptional here yet: many parents, and you probably know more than one example of this, are trying to realize their own youthful dreams through the fate of their children. Nina’s mother, however, succeeded in this: her daughter’s life is completely under her control, and now Nina is already one step away from the peak of her fame … However, here the mother loses control: the daughter gets out of obedience, but only then to pass into the wrong hands.
Nina never regains control over her own life, because, barely breaking free from her mother’s tight grip (an important metaphor: expelling her mother from the room, Nina injures her hand, symbolically freeing herself from her grip), the girl falls under the power of another strong personality – Tom. Note that Toma is not even trying to create the illusion that she wants Nina to go her own way to fame. Instead, he forces her to repeat the path of another ballerina – Beth, with whom Nina shares a dressing room. And Nina herself is not at all against this: she adores Beth to the point that she steals the things of the famous ballerina. This says a lot about Nina herself: she does not dream of her own career, she only wants to repeat what Beth did, as if to turn into her. In other words, she is not going to cultivate her own personality – she would like to steal someone else’s.
So, Toma skillfully manages Nina, playing on her love of ballet. It seems to Nina (and the audience) that she is captured and ruined by art, but in reality it is the will of strangers that controls her life. Toma actively helps Lily: she forces Nina to fulfill her whims, and she does not dare to resist – even being sure that Lily has added a drug to her drink, Nina unquestioningly obeys her friend and drinks it. Nina is absolutely incapable of taking responsibility for her actions, she is subject to impulses and what other people tell her.
There is an interesting interpretation of the meaning of the film “Black Swan” from the point of view of psychoanalysis. In it, the heroes of the film are viewed as psychological entities. The central image – Nina – represents the ego, our social I, in contact with the outside world. Nina’s mother is the Super-I, in Freud’s concept – a part of the personality that regulates human behavior, establishing ideals, rules and prohibitions. After all, this is exactly what Nina’s mother is doing in the film – she controls her daughter and assesses her in terms of compliance with some regulatory framework. Nina’s mentor, Toma, embodies another Freudian entity – It. It is the unconscious, dark, irrational instincts of the personality. Finally, Lily is Nina’s Alter Ego, her dark counterpart.
The two central images of Swan Lake, the white swan and the black swan, symbolize, respectively, self-control and sex. In Nina’s mind, these two instincts come into conflict, destroying the girl’s psyche from the inside. Instead of recognizing the right to peaceful coexistence in her of both parts of her personality, Nina tries to suppress first one (remember, at the beginning of the film, the girl completely submits to pressure from her mother and her own discipline), and then the other side of her personality. But in order to become a full-fledged person, she needed to “make friends” black and white in her soul. Nina, however, could not do this – and this ruined the girl.
This interpretation of the essence of the film “Black Swan” is based on the work of Friedrich Nietzsche “The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music.” In this work, the philosopher explores the dual nature of art, in particular ancient art. According to Nietzsche, ancient Greek art has two principles: Apollonian – harmonious, calm, light and optimistic, and Dionysian – dark, chaotic, tragic. Nietzsche notes that music is primarily related to the Dionysian principle. However, one way or another, both principles are inextricably linked with each other, they are in conflict in the artist’s soul, they coexist on canvas, Dionysian and Apollonian motives sound in any music.
It is easy to guess that from this point of view, there is a struggle between these two principles in Nina’s soul – Apollonian (the purity of the white swan, the mathematical correctness of the ballerina’s movements) and Dionysian (a drunken party with Lily, passion, jealousy).
The image of ancient Greek mythology most closely associated with Nina is Icarus. Let me briefly remind you of the legend about Icarus: he and his father Daedalus provoked the wrath of the ruler of Crete – Minos. Daedalus invented an elegant way to escape Minos’ pursuit: he made wings from bird feathers glued together with wax. On them, father and son were to fly off the island. Daedalus warned his son not to stay too high, otherwise the sun could melt the wax and the wings would fall apart. Icarus, however, did not listen to his father and died.
We see how the story of a father and son is reflected in the plot of “Black Swan”, only here we have a mother and a daughter. Nina’s mother is trying in every possible way to protect her daughter from the outside world and, perhaps, her fears have a reason: most likely, the woman knows that her daughter’s psyche is unstable, and therefore tries to introduce a strict routine into her life so that Nina could not have any the slightest reason for a breakdown. However, the mother fails to save Nina from the pressure of the outside world, and in the pursuit of perfection the ballerina dies, as Icarus died in the pursuit of the sun. Like Icarus, Nina gains wings in the final scene; like Icarus, these wings bring her death.
Medical analysis of the film “Black Swan”
An interesting question worth investigating is what is going on with Nina from a medical point of view? The girl develops two conflicting personalities – many viewers boldly concluded: this is schizophrenia! In fact, as noted by psychiatrists, the symptoms shown in the film are more like psychosis. Psychosis is a mental disorder in which a person loses touch with reality. A variety of events can provoke psychosis – there are more than enough of them happening in Nina’s life. And her unhealthy relationship with her mother, and Tom’s harassment, and competition for the role – even individually, these stressful situations can cause a mental disorder, and all together …
However, in reality, psychosis most often causes auditory rather than visual hallucinations. Nina is haunted by nightmarish visions. This factual error can be explained by the fact that auditory hallucinations in the film would not be as vivid and revealing as visual images.
In addition to the severe symptoms of psychosis, Nina has a number of other disorders (at least hints of them): anorexia, bulimia, obsessive-compulsive disorder and a tendency to self-harm. Psychiatrists note that the likelihood of developing all these ailments at the same time in one person tends to zero. The fact is that psychosis is an escape from reality, but bulimia and obsessive-compulsive disorder, on the contrary, are formed in people who are too attached to reality and some specific idea.
Finally, the last argument in favor of the fact that from a medical point of view, Aronofsky made a lot of errors – Nina’s speech. Could a girl with such a bouquet of mental disorders perform the most difficult ballet part without error? According to experts, this is almost impossible. But we, of course, make allowances for the fact that Aronofsky did not try to portray the history of the disease, but only embodied on the screen the metaphor of the ballerina’s creative path.