The Reel Deal Film Series Presents: Black Swan

November 19, 2011 3 Comments

What is Black Swan about?  Is it the struggle for perfection and passion within the tiny frame of one driven ballerina?  Is it the classic story of  a mother-daughter relationship gone psycho?  Is it a further elaboration of director Darren Aranofsky’s need to torture his characters(and perhaps his audience) with battered bodies on screen? Is it a study of  Nina’s descent into madness?  Is it genius?  Is it drivel?  Regardless of how you might answer these questions, Black Swan is a film made for Reel Deal discussion.  See you on Sunday, December 4….but if you can’t wait, feel free to don your tutu and post a reply now!   Jolyn Wagner

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3 Comments to “The Reel Deal Film Series Presents: Black Swan”
  1. Robert MacDonell says:

    Jolyn asks: What is Black Swan about?
    Good question, as there seems to be nothing in the critical reviews that adequately describes the full nature of the plot, or Nina’s tragic outcome. In critical reviews Black Swan has been variously hailed and detested as everything from ‘ a top contender for best film of the year’, to ‘an incoherent mess’. It has also been disappointingly summarized by such descriptions as merely ‘the tragic story of a talented ballerina striving for perfection’ or ‘the story of another mother-daughter relationship gone bad’.
    After seeing Black Swan the first time I also recall thinking parts of it were incoherent. I remember thinking: What was this about? By the end of the film we realize it leads ultimately to Nina’s descent into madness. But how did she get there? The symptoms seem plentiful, but the root causes are not immediately evident. Here’s my understanding of how she came to have a mind in so much conflict that her psychotic break became her only release.
    Nina, a young ballerina with a New York City ballet company, lives with her mother who had to end her career as a ballerina early when she became pregnant with Nina. We know nothing else of her mother and father’s relationship, or of Nina’s relationship with her father; but we’re left with the impression that there has been no fatherly presence in Nina’s life. If we can make the inference that Nina lacked a father figure in her life, we have the start of a mind in conflict. But there are plenty of young women who grow up in single parent households without solid father figures in their lives, and they don’t all end up going mad. Even in Nina’s case this turns out to be a necessary, but not sufficient reason for her madness. As Freud would remind us, the mind in conflict is multiply determined.
    The lack of a father figure in Nina’s life and its attendant consequences on her psychosexual development sets-up Nina for mental conflict. This, in combination with her overly protective mother, has prevented her from making the normal separation from mother and father that occurs in the Oedipal and later adolescent stages of development. Also, the erotically provocative attentions thrust upon her by Thomas, who is clearly the right age and has the father figure kind of authority in their relationship, suddenly interjects himself into Nina’s unresolved Oedipal (triangular) dynamic.
    As Thomas’ intention to cast a new principal ballerina, after forcing out the present one Beth, becomes clear, it ushers in an intense competition among the leading few top ballerinas. And when Beth is later hit by a car and seriously injured in what Thomas believes was a suicide attempt, Nina takes on an unbearable feeling of guilt for her imagined complicity in this event. It is clear she idealized Beth and can’t bear to see her so shattered.
    It is at about this time that Thomas becomes increasingly critical of Nina’s ‘perfectionism’ and counsels her to quit being so controlled and to passionately lose herself in her rehearsal for the role of the Black Swan. About this same time a new ballerina Lily also comes on the scene from San Francisco. Thomas compares Lily’s style with Nina’s, rejecting Nina’s approach and, in Nina’s mind, rejecting her too. As the competition for the role of Swan Queen heats-up between them Nina becomes increasingly paranoid about whether she’ll be selected for the role. She becomes increasingly withdrawn and sullen, treating the others, and especially Lily, with contempt.
    Later Lily appears at Nina and her mother’s apartment in an attempt at reconciliation and invites Nina out for a night on the town, much to the objections of Nina’s mother. While out, they have a drink and Lily offers Nina some Ecstasy. Upon returning to the apartment Nina has a fight with her mother, locks herself in her room and imagines she has a homoerotic encounter with Lily. In one short frame she also sees the imagined Lily as Beth while receiving oral sex from her/them. In later conversation with Lily, Nina is shocked to discover that the homoerotic experience was not real, but merely a hallucination. This may have been precipitated to some extent by the Ecstasy, but is also a homoerotic manifestation of her unresolved Oedipal (triangular) dynamic.
    Nina’s breaks with reality become even more pronounced during rehearsals leading up to opening night. This results in major confrontation with her mother. Seemingly concerned about Nina’s behavior (or consciously or unconsciously acting to prevent her daughter from having an opening night she never had), her mother tries to prevent her from attending the opening performance by locking Nina in her room and calling Thomas to tell him Nina is too ill to perform on opening night. In a highly significant, but traumatic assertion of separation from her mother, Nina defies her wishes and races to opening night insisting she is ready to perform.
    Things are going well in the first act until Nina is disturbed by a hallucination during a lift maneuver, and is dropped by her partner. Overwhelmed by humiliation, Nina returns to her dressing room to change into costume for the Black Swan and hallucinates that Lily is already there dressed for the role. Nina further hallucinates that Lily transforms into Nina’s double. As Nina struggles with her double and breaks a mirror, she grabs a shard of glass and masochistically stabs her double in the stomach. She then goes on to perform the Black Swan role and does it perfectly and passionately. Back stage after her stunning performance Nina assertively takes Thomas by surprise and kisses him passionately.
    Back in her dressing room preparing for the final act, in a sudden confluence of conflicts overwhelming her all at once, Nina realizes her fight with Lily was a hallucination, as were her all her recent strange visions. She also notices that she has stabbed herself, not Lily.
    On stage, as she dances the last act, Nina sees her mother crying in the audience and knows that through this ballet she has achieved her final separation from her mother’s overprotective influence. As Nina falls in the final moment, the audience gives her a standing ovation. As the rest of the cast gather around her to congratulate her on her performance they are stunned to find that Nina is bleeding. As Nina lies there with her (metaphorically) virginal wound signifying the final working through of her unresolved conflicts, she stares up at the stage lights, whispering “I felt it – I’m perfect – It was perfect”. And in her mind it was the perfect resolution. She had finally found release from the conflicts that tormented her.

  2. Bruce Russell says:

    Everyone can agree that Nina is conflicted, even if we disagree about the causes of that conflict. If you have a mother who loves you but blames you for the end of her career as a ballerina, and who wants to control you, you have the makings of a conflict. If you think that a perfect ballet performance is one that is technically perfect, and then find out for the performance to be better you must get in touch with your sexuality, which you have been taught by your mother to hate, you have the makings of a conflict. If you think that a good girl would not gain success at the expense of others, but then find out that your success as a ballerina must be at the expense of others, you have the makings of a conflict. And if you think you should not sleep with the director to gain success, but then find that it helps, you have the makings of a conflict. Add all those makings up, and you have the makings of a psychic break. No need to bring in some Oedipal (triangular) dynamic to explain the psychic tensions in Nina. A Tina with a father and the rest of the conflicts I’ve noted in Nina’s case might well have a psychic break, too! It’s a principle of hypotheses acceptance that, other things being equal, we should accept the simpler over the more complex explanation. We shouldn’t believe that people and ghosts have made footprints in the sand if we can explain all of them by assuming only people! That principle seems to apply in the psychic realm as well as at the beach!

    As for perfection: is it so bad? Those who believe in God think he is a perfect being. So what’s the downside of pursuing perfection? Well, we’re not God, and that means we’ll probably be frustrated if we pursue perfection. However, I think I’ve heard Justin Verlander say that he expects to pitch a perfect game every time he goes out. Maybe the pursuit isn’t harmful if you can accept failing to achieve it very often.

    One more comment: some people think that if someone is a good X (flute player, watchmaker, ballerina, artist, writer, parent, etc.) then it is GOOD FOR that person to be a good X. That is not necessarily true, as the example of vanGogh shows. Many people who are good Xs would be happier, and better people, if they gave up being good Xs. Nina is probably one of them.

  3. Rosalind Griffin says:

    I truly liked your formulation of naturally anticipated and compounded conflicts affecting the savvy pursuit of success for persona Good X.

    In my clinical practice as a psychoanalytically oriented psychiatrist and forensic expert, i encounter self-mutilation patterns (cutting, tattoos, etc) and ignoring gut reactions to the forbidden relationships in the workplace as indicators of misplaced and self sabotaging rage. Natalie Portman’s tortuous year-long prep for the role of Black Swan cannot be ruled out as her own pursuit of the Good X. I trust for her sake that she balances her life with equally self fulfilling pleasures that are Good enough X.
    Thank you.

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