Black Swan asks us to consider whether we—as striving, individuating, and creative beings—should be the object or the subject of our own lives. The implications for going through the deep journey to integrate and heighten both the conscious (White Swan) and unconscious (Black Swan) aspects of ourselves can be devastatingly dangerous if done too quickly. Without a therapist, supportive family, somatic, or spiritual support—when the self is too vulnerable, fragile, stressed from the pressure of competition, and forced to embody a radically new role without adequate psychological preparation—Nina as heroine suffers psychic fracturing. Given the chance to dance the two roles, she is suited only for the white. The black role brings her to the edge of madness and causes her to be possessed by the archetype of the shadow.
A provocative sequence that could be a dream, fantasy, hallucination, magical reality, or altered consciousness opens the film. Nina as White Swan is seen dancing with compelling force, joining with, enveloped by, then trying to escape, a dark human figure that turns into a caped dark figure who increasingly takes her over. We are aware from the outset that the movie is about a white, pure, and innocent heroine’s encounter with the shadow and darkness; whether this dark shadow is within or without her, we still need to discover. The closing scene shows her moment of shining glory; the dying or wounded heroine Nina is lying off-stage, the excited roars of the opening night’s New York City audience are in the background, and surrounded by admiring colleagues; blood is flowing out from the center of her body—perhaps this is from the solar plexus of individuation, control, and power—and we hear her whisper that she is now perfect. Nina’s body is dying or transcending, as if released, encompassed by light, almost ascending to the heavens. It is unclear whether her encounter with the shadow has killed her or whether her death is symbolic.
Most of the film’s female characters live within the restrictive beliefs of body-as-object, whether as authority or victim. The stage-struck codependent mother Erica is the main authority over Nina and her body. Erica had wanted her own ballet career, was stopped at an early age by pregnancy (a mistake implied to occur from an encounter with a ballet director resulting in a child), and now lives vicariously through her ballerina daughter. Erica keeps Nina in thralldom by a mix of passive-aggressive remarks coupled by ultra-protective behavior; she tries to eliminate any rivals who show up (the scene with Lilly at the door is striking), supports Nina’s determination to succeed, clips Nina’s nails so Nina won’t ruin her body through stressful scratching. Erica’s motivation seems success and appearance oriented more than compassionate—Nina’s body should be perfect—she does not seem too concerned that something is terribly wrong with her daughter’s somatic state. Nina does not own her own body.
Other female characters are caught up in the tyranny of body-as-object. Beth MacIntyre, the aging ballerina forced out of stardom by Thomas, only sees herself as a ballet body; losing her role as lead ballerina, she attempts suicide, destroys her body’s core competencies, is crippled, later stabs herself in the face in front of Nina with her nail file as a kind of revengeful self-immolation at the loss of her body. For Beth, she is nothing without her perfect body but because of her unintegrated destructive side, she is attempting to take back the body in destructive behaviors.
Mirrors as visual effects are ubiquitous throughout Black Swan. Ballet’s predilection toward perfection of bodily form requires mirrors as part of ballet training. Mirrors are in Nina’s and Erica’s home and in the ballet studio, for studying her form, for self-criticism, and personal awareness of the body but not for inner personal awareness of the body as consciousness. Nina hears a mirror shatter when the aging Beth is forced to leave her dressing room and the ballet company. The mirror is again shattered in the fight with Lilly before the Black Swan part of the ballet, then Nina stabs this intruding other or herself with the shard of mirror as she shouts, “This is my time, my time.”
The mirror is archetypal; it suggests evidence of narcissism. It is potentially pathological and frightening. The mirrors suggest the physical body-as-object that is vulnerable and liable to pathological narcissism. In a mirror, only the outer, surface appearance of the body can be seen, inviting comparison and evaluation with others who could be even more beautiful, thin, talented, and successful than the one seeking approval and validation in the mirror. Everyone in the movie is subject to and obsessed by their own success, to opening night, and how they look to others.
Self-injury and eating pathology are critical themes in the film as well as among many females in real life. The female body is exhorted to achieve perfection and can be vulnerable to self-harm under circumstances of depression, pathology, psychosis, neurosis, and excessive stress. In the body-as-object paradigm, the one who has or owns the body can do anything she wants with her body since she owns it. We see multiple scenes of driving the body through inhuman schedules, purging for control or expiation of tension, and inhuman physical positions. Then, there are biting, cutting, scratching, stabbing, and pulling at the body parts in a voluntary or involuntary way.
Nina meets the Other, the irresistibly erotic Lilly who represents Nina’s shadow side. Hailing from San Francisco, a city with a different archetype than New York City—looser, flexible, laid back, West Coast-style experiential, let-it-happen, erotic, and free-form—Lilly bursts on the ballet scene as interloper, competitor, seducer, and mirror so that Nina as lead ballerina can use Lilly’s example to grasp and embody the elusively sensual, free-spirited, magical, mysterious Black Swan. As rival and attractor, Lilly gives Nina a harsh opportunity for psychic growth. If mythologically Nina is like Kore the maiden before she is abducted by Hades into the underworld, Lilly could be the archetypal siren Aphrodite or Persephone or maybe she is Hades in feminine form. Lily’s style is authentic, free, and insinuating—the epitome of the Black Swan’s role—contrasting to Nina’s dancing as inhibited, soft, pure and aesthetic—the White Swan. Nina needs Lily as a contender to help her embrace her sexuality, and grasp the new form of perfection demanded by Thomas, which is the perfection of form combined with the unleashed power of letting go.
The movement back and forth between human dancer and swan starts subtly at the beginning of the movie and then intensifies, matching the plot of Swan Lake. Nina’s body is becoming independent of her will. It is acting on its own in ways that are unpredictable, uncomfortable, and although moving beyond body-as-object, her actual body becomes a malevolent subject as it transforms on its own when Nina dances the Black Swan during opening night. The Black Swan has possessed her; she goes on stage with a formidable freedom, power, and eroticism. As if there are no more inhibitions standing in her way, Nina seems satisfied as the Black Swan’s veins and feathers come up over her hands and arms; black wings cover her; her body is becoming subject. Her winged state is independent of her originating objectivized body, letting her transcend old limitations and achieve a temporary union of the opposites—the white of consciousness with the black of the unconscious—to the wild response of the audience and her fellow dancers. Nina’s new Black Swan body-as-subject is electric; she has achieved what seems to be a momentary transcendent function at the heightened experience of the performance; she is now embodying the Black Swan. Possessed by the shadow archetype, Nina transcends the role, Swan Lake, and herself. For a short moment she is the star who triumphs. Nina is integrated with the spirit of the new ballet and almost breaks the spell of the evil magician.
At the film’s end, has Nina physically died from her self-wound or died to her old persona so that, at least in my optimistic imagination, she may begin again as a more integrated artist after a period of recuperation. Is her death the price paid for giving ourselves to the archetypal shadow or is it a symbolic death?
Repeated viewing of Black Swan brings out its rich psychological dimensions and makes its original thriller tonality less important. Seeing it a second and third time, Black Swan feels meaningful, less shocking, and more realistic, like a strange and psychologized version of what I know happens with talented young artists and their parents. The film blends the stress of societal expectations, the arts at a high level, and the difficulties of dysfunctional family enmeshment with Nina’s personal individuational process, her descent, and her truncated journey to integrate her self states. When Nina descends into psychosis, she activates her hidden Black Swan self. As it emerges, the Black Swan self embodies all that her unconscious self had wished to become and which may have originally motivated her intuitively to seek out the role from Thomas. What Nina seeks is not the old version of perfection in which the body is a fine-tuned machine that brilliantly performs what the mind tells it to do. In our imaginations, we can hope that there is a new kind of integrity and fulfillment for her based upon freedom, integration of her light and dark sides, and authenticity of the passion to escape the body-as-object’s imprisonment and experience the body-as-subject’s flying free.