I loved The Black Swan. Any time acting transports, like it did here, one is in for a real treat. The story works as drama and psychology. Let me hasten to add I understand anyone who felt disturbed after this viewing experience. In the small town movie theater where I was in attendance, the theater owner made several announcements before the start of the movie. One of them was to jokingly caution that therapists would be stationed in the lobby to debrief the audience at the movie’s end.
The Black Swan is the kind of movie that will make many psychotherapists a bit smug because the story depicts the unraveling of a mind that is both familiar and validates what many of us were taught in graduate school.
Barbara Hershey plays Erica, who is the mother of Nina, a talented ballet dancer, played by Natalie Portman. Erica is the kind of stage mother who not only sacrificed her life for her daughter, but also needs her “little girl” to stay that way. Mother lives vicariously through her daughter’s accomplishments. However she is also unconsciously competitive with Nina. Erica seems almost relieved when, at first, Nina believes she has been passed over for the starring role. When Erica comforts Nina, a mother’s love is surely present. However it is conditional and only available at too high a cost for Nina.
Nina comes to realize with the help of Thomas, the ballet company director, and Lilly, a new dancer, that she has subjugated her sexuality. The sexual part of her personality comes roaring to life with such force that Nina has nowhere to go but fantasy because she is not prepared to deal with the intensity of her feelings. Thomas easily perceives this quality. He has no problem pouncing and taking advantage of Nina by telling her that fully developed eroticism is essential in playing her new role. In addition he will generously help her with the assignment. That is one altruistic fellow.
Many aspects of Nina’s personality have been squelched by her career choice and by her mother. The rarified air in which she operates leaves little opportunity for personal growth. Then she lands the lead Swan role and her world quickly lurches toward chaos.
If she could explore the conflicts and confusion she encounters in therapy over time, Nina could be able to make sense of her situation, find sustainability in her career, and figure out something about her love interests. The drama supplied by the story is that the conflicts in her life, come at her much too fast. She is not prepared and dies as a consequence. Some people believe her death is also a fantasy. I have no problem with such an interpretation, although I chose to believe that earlier occurring hallucinations did lead to her actual death. There is more bite in seeing it this way.
Mila Kunis’s character, Lilly, is alluring. Lilly became a template for the extreme views that Nina projected on to her. Lilly was like an activating ingredient who could trigger and encourage Nina to visit realms of experience that were heretofore off limits. In a way Lilly was never real because we only saw her through the enormous swings of Nina’s perception. What we see of Lilly was how Nina experienced her.
Nina was ill equipped to deal with the strength of the emotions she encountered via Lilly including jealousy, envy, fear, and passion. Leading such a compliant life in accord with her mother’s needs, meant Nina was ill equipped for peer friendships.
Nina’s view of Lilly is a concise rendering of what it is like for some people who get diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. There is an intense mixture of idealization and devaluation. Lilly served as an object for Nina to both feel and express her intense need for connection and the fear that intense connection would destroy her.
Why would Nina fear that she might be destroyed by an intense connection to another? Perhaps if we all had someone like Barbara Hershey’s character for a mother, we might feel that same way too. The pity is that in a different situation Nina might have found healing connection with the right lover. Unfortunately she came under the tutelage of Thomas.
Here are a few observations about the men in the film both seen and not seen. Thomas, the company director and seducer of Nina, is a classic narcissist. It is a rite of passage in the ballet company for the diva du jour to come under his wing and become the next addition to his conquest bucket. Winona Ryder plays the aging diva on her way out the company, and what happens to her isn’t pretty. At least Nina is spared that fate. As a narcissist Thomas buries his insecurities through his manipulation of others. He will not miss Nina. He isn’t capable of it.
A case can be made for Nina’s father being a most intriguing force. Like dark matter, he can scarcely be measured thanks to his perceived lack of presence. And yet we can posit whatever we wish about the impact he had on Nina. It matters not whether we imagine he played an active role in her life or nothing. Project away!
Nina’s quest in The Black Swan is to seek and integrate underdeveloped aspects of her personality that were shaped in relation to her traumatizing mother. With the right therapy, I like to believe she would have found a way to integrate and grow. What she achieved by the movie’s end was both heroic and sublimely tragic.
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