Darren Aronofsky’s visually stunning new film, ‘Black Swan’, tells us that while it may be terrifying and socially unacceptable to experience “black” feeling, when we …

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“Black Swan” and the Recovery of the Shadow Self

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  1. As a Psych student I found Black Swan amazing. Nina seemed very timid, unsecured, and nervous due to her overprotective mother. She seemed to have an obsessive compulsive behavior, constantly scratching a specific area in her upper back until it bleed. However, once Nina was chosen to play the lead, the director informed her she could easily portray the white swan, but did not have the strength to play the black swan, Nina did not know how to be seductive. This is until she began to see Lily as a threat, someone who wanted to steal her lead. This is when we begin to see Nina’s dark side. She becomes paranoide, has hallucinations, delusions. Nina becomes somewhat neurotic and is able to play the Black Swan perfectly.

  2. I just watched the film and i am stunned. Yes, it seems true that Nina was able, amidst a severe inner personal struggle, to reveal the passion and the dark-side emotions that are possible to be felt.

    But I think it is also a film that shows vividly the immense pressure that the young ballet dancers have to go through. So much is expected of them so early in their lives!

    Wasn’t Nina indeed too young and unexperienced for the dark-side passionate role of the Black swan…
    Its normal! Yes, she is kept in a sterile and asexual athmosphere by her mother but the other thing is that Nina, by being entirely devoted to the ballet, has cut the normal ways to escape the parental influence, like the rest of the people her age.

    Like any ballerina she devotes all of her time to excersising, devoid of ‘normal’ social life
    and thus of the natural paths to discover most things in life. There surely is a smoother way to discover one’s sexuality and deep passions than the one she had to take.

    And the second thing the film shows in my view is the price for art and artistry. These girls have to learn to ‘live’ tragedy and passion to its deepest. Nina ‘had’ to be perfect, and we see that it is not like a game you play for the joy of it or one that you leave aside at your wish. There is a price to pay for fully experiencing the emotions to the darkest and most frightenning sides. A stunning film indeed.

    • What I like about this film is that you can think about it in so many different ways. Everything you observed is true and to the point about the real lives of dancers. We can ALSO look at it as a kind of metaphor or fable about a psychological truth that transcends reality and the details of the story. I’m still not sure about the right words to define what films like this do … it feels almost “mythical” to me, not in the sense of being imaginary but in capturing some transcendent human truth in the way that myths sometimes do.

  3. Yes, it surely seems quite complex and deep. Good choice and reference for psych analysis and ponderings.

  4. excellent review.

  5. Thank you for taking the time to participate in the debate on my page about The Black Swan. I have added a link to your review, which is well done.

  6. This is great! I have had teenagers in my counseling practice watch other movies to better understand mental illness. This gives the teens an image, a starting place, a history to draw from when discussing diagnoses, treatment, etc.

  7. Black Swan is definitely extraordinary, and some of its effects are amplified, but it is lavishly, sensually pleasurable and there is such enchantment in seeing Portman give in to the fury and watch her face transform into a horror-mask like a nightmare version of Maria Callas. It is agitating, quite frantic and often really chilling.

  8. To Shalimar’s response: In my opinion, neurotic is not the right word. I think Nina appears to be neurotic at the beginning, but is PSYCHOTIC by the end. Hallucinations and delusions for example, would fit into someone’s being psychotic, not merely neurotic.

    • If you take the story at face value, as psychological realism, I’d agree that Nina appears psychotic. I prefer to read it as an allegory that tells us about the value of darkness. From this point of view, Nina’s high-strung, falsely sweet self is much more “pathological” than her later self as she integrates envy, hostility and murderous rage through fantasy, thereby gaining the power to achieve her full artistic potential.

  9. I only just watched the movie at home, several months after its release into theaters. While I appreciate this article’s insight into the potential “Shadow Self”, reflected in Black Swan, I must also respectfully disagree.

    I am presently doing work in psychotherapy, in an effort to reintegrate. Coming from personal experience, I do not see Nina’s demise as a dissociative crisis, but rather a far more profound and pervasive psychosis—schizophrenia. In fact, by the end of the movie, I question how many of the characters were indeed real, versus how many were instead repeated delusions.

    For instance, Lily (the “rival” ballerina, and Nina’s pseudo love-interest): I remain convinced she never existed at all. I believe Thoma zeros in on Nina’s psychological illness, and uses it to elicit the “black swan” performance from Nina. Nina is, after all, outwardly fragile and unstable. If the viewer pays close attention to the vagueness surrounding Lily’s character, one might realize that the character does not necessarily exist—Thoma only directly acknowledges Lily’s name once, in a curious, mildly confused instance (while Nina tearfully begs him not to give her lead role away).

    Nina’s mom: I don’t believe she exists, either—not in the present. While I imagine Nina’s mother is largely founded in reality (drawn from a outright traumatic, abusive relationship, replete with depraved, unnatural overtones), there is no reason to assume Nina actually lives with her, in the movie’s present-day setting.

    The Ballerina Past Her Prime: Of course, Ryder’s character is (at least at first) 100% real. But, following Nina’s traumatic experience with Ryder’s character at the ballet company party, coupled with the shock (and likely guilt) she experiences, after she hears that the retired ballet dancer was disfigured in a car accident, Ryder’s character materializes into a new, and recurring delusion. This new delusion heralds the deepening of Nina’s psychosis, and eventual decent into madness.

    True mental illness rarely happens in a vacuum, nor from biological factors, alone. Its onset typically results from a number of circumstances—developmental, personal, psychological, chemical, circumstantial, and environmental—which can coagulate into full-blown, psychiatric derailment. I am not a medical professional, but as someone who is dissociatively “fragmented”—and who has witnessed psychosis grip the life of someone very close to me—I can say, with every confidence (and tremendous relief) that my experience was/ is nothing remotely close to the terrifying shizophrenia Nina must helplessly endure.

    • It’s a completely valid point of view. I think it depends on whether you choose to read the film as literal or metaphorical, but I don’t think it’s an either/or. I like the concept of “reversible perspective” — as in one of those drawings where if you look at the picture one way, you see the young woman but if you re-focus and view it from another perspective, you see the old hag. One can view Nina from the vantage point of individual psychology and everything you say is relevant. Or (as I prefer to do), you can see the entire film as a sort of canvas for her psychology and read the film as a story about the impoverishment that comes with splitting and denial, as well as the power of reintegrating those parts of the self. Neither view is correct.

  10. What other movies have you felt were “canvases” for the main character’s psychology, Dr. Burgo?

  11. Great review of the movie, and a really tight analysis. Well done.

    On the film itself, however, I couldn’t help but feel it was just a little bit too explicit and straight-forward to be effective as thought-provoking. The duality of the human condition, the battle of the alma, and the shadow and persona are dealt with so much more skilfully in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, in my opinion. I couldn’t really be superlative enough in my descriptions of that film, it really is quite something.

    If Black Swan had only been a little more surrealist and a little less CGI-heavy, I’d have been more fond of it, even for it’s fairly simplistic direction. Nina’s clothing: white-to-grey-to-black colour scheme. Little obvious for me.

  12. Sorry to double post! Just caught Zoe’s insightful comment! I agree with her in that there is definitely a hallucinatory feel to the narrative and it is indeed very easy to argue that many scenes in the film didn’t actually happen at all, I disagree with the end ‘diagnosis’ Zoe reaches. I never get the sense of psychosis, but in fact neurosis. She has absolutely no control, and craves perfection.

    There is an argument there for schizophrenia, though, just not one that convinces me!

  13. What an amazingly clearly written and compelling article! I watched the movie, of course, and I think I am gonna enjoy your site a lot. Thanks!

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