For the lovers of fairy tales, ‘Swan Lake’ plays like a dream. The grace of ballet and the heartbreaking story of Odette makes for an overwhelming experience, when done right. For a ballet dancer, it is one of the dream roles, and also, one of the most challenging ones. Because it is not just the White Swan that they have to bring to life on stage, it is also her evil twin, Odile, who must be allowed to run free.
To inhabit these polar opposite personalities, to have Odette’s vulnerability along with Odile’s sensuality, is exhausting. It can be physically as well as mentally trying, and this is what made Darren Aronofsky choose it as the centre of his protagonist’s downward spiralling psychology. Natalie Portman stars in this psychological thriller as a ballerina who has to tear through her White Swan personality to get to the Black Swan. If you haven’t yet seen ‘Black Swan’, you should bookmark this page for later.
Summary of the Plot
The film begins with Nina’s dream. She dances as the White Swan in the ‘Swan Lake’ ballet, and the next day discovers that she has the chance to make it come true. Beth McIntyre, the lead ballerina of the company, is poised to retire, though not willingly, and a new face is needed to replace her. The new season is to start with ‘Swan Lake’ and Nina is selected for it due to her flawless presentation of the White Swan. However, the director, Thomas Leroy is skeptic of her ability to slip into the more challenging role of the Black Swan. While he tries to motivate her in every way possible, Nina is truly pushed after the arrival of Lily. The new dancer in the company proves to be a fierce competition, and thus begins Nina’s quest to attain perfection at the cost of her sanity.
Is Nina’s Mother Responsible for Her Downfall?
Before we discuss the extent of Nina’s mental ruin, we should think about the reasons that might have led to it. It doesn’t take much to figure out that she is an isolated person. The only consistent individual in her life is her mother, Erica. She, too, had been a ballerina, though not as successful, or as good, as her daughter. She says that she had to let go of her career because of her pregnancy. We might have believed her tale of “sacrifice” had her own daughter held her in high regard. Instead, we find Nina suffocated by her constant overbearing, yearning to break free.
Greatness requires dedication, and Erica didn’t have that. She had been mediocre, at best, and found an excuse to get out of an already dying career when she had Nina. She had been frustrated with herself, but rekindled that passion through Nina. Luckily, her daughter already had a knack for it and proved to be a much better ballerina than her. But she doesn’t allow Nina to believe that, she doesn’t let her think that she is perfect. She takes credit for things, saying at one point that Nina would have been lost without her in those initial ballet lessons. She creates a shell around her and never lets her grow out of it. She holds on to the one great thing in her life, so much so that she is ready to hold her back.
Nina is never allowed to be more than just her mommy’s sweet girl. She is an adult, but still lives with her mother and has a room full of stuffed toys. The aesthetic of her room gives off the impression of a teenage girl and even her voice has a childish texture to it (which, if you notice, changes in the final scene). Her mother’s smothering has emotionally stunted her. It seems very unlikely that she has had any relationship, even if fleeting, in the past. When Thomas asks her if she has a boyfriend and wonders if she is still a virgin, she says no. But the hesitation in her voice speaks otherwise.
Much like Nina, Erica, too, doesn’t have a relationship outside of this mother-daughter scenario. She might use her dedication to her daughter as an excuse for this, but it can also be attributed to her own character flaws. Perhaps, she can’t be with someone unless she has complete control over them, as she has with Nina. Her daughter is not a kid anymore but that doesn’t stop her from clipping her nails, undressing her and reprimanding her as you would a child. She keeps track of her movements, calling her when she is late from work, stopping her from having a social life; keeping in touch with Susie in the office as if her daughter is going to a school; basically, she treats Nina as a child.
This shows that Erica has never been able to work through her own inadequacies and finds comfort in the fact that Nina is good because of her. Her daughter is the materialisation of the perfection that Erica had hoped to be in her own career, which is why she doesn’t want anything to distract her from this vision. She doesn’t want Nina to go astray and keeps her on a tight leash. While this does work, to some extent, it also sows the seed of absolute perfection in Nina.
Living under her shadow for so long, Nina has grown up with constant surveillance and with no freedom, whatsoever. Even her bedroom doesn’t have a lock. She thinks that if only she could be successful enough to support herself completely, if only she could prove to her mother that she is good enough, perhaps her mother would relinquish this leash.
Perhaps then Nina could move out and live on her own terms. She does love her mother, but she also wants to leave her. Despite what Erica thinks, Nina knows that she never really was good enough to be something like a Swan Queen. She might have refrained from saying all these things before, the time when she was unsure of her own talent, but now that she has the dream part, now that she is finally breaking out of her mother’s hold, she doesn’t hesitate in voicing this opinion. And she gets this voice because of Thomas.
While Erica wants Nina to be her “sweet child” forever, Thomas wants her to grow up. He wants Nina to go out, have some fun, be freer and wilder, because only then can she understand and embrace the skin of the Black Swan. He constantly pushes her outward while her mother struggles to shove her inside. Over time, Nina begins to heed Thomas’s lessons more, and her mother does not like this. She can feel her slipping away, and at times, it feels like she is jealous of her relationship with Thomas.
Nina doesn’t work hard to please her mother anymore; she has to please him. He says, “Everything Beth does comes from a dark impulse, from within, which is what makes her so thrilling to watch.” So, she taps into her own dark impulse. He says, “The only person standing in your way is YOU. Let her go. Lose yourself.” So, in her final performance, she gives in to the Black Swan, completely losing herself in the process.
There is another thing that could be derived from Erica’s behaviour, and honestly, even I believe that it might be a bit far-fetched, but there are some actions, some lines that I just can’t let go of. Often, it is seen that a person suffering from mental illness has been through a trauma before- physical, emotional or sexual. We know that Erica has been suppressing Nina emotionally, but has she also been doing so sexually?
In one of the scenes, when Nina first tries to bar her door, Erica asks her “sweetie, are you ready for me?” Not to forget, the many portraits of her daughter, all with the dark obscurity that she doesn’t exhibit, not until the Black Swan comes along. Nina quickly jumps into bed and Erica opens the door, wearing a nightdress. Now, it could just be that Erica likes to tuck in her daughter to sleep, but is that it? Is she jealous of Thomas because she thinks that he is sleeping with Nina? Is that why she doesn’t allow her to go out with strangers? Is that why Nina becomes so discomforted when Thomas asks her about her sexual encounters? Is that what makes Nina stay confined in the image of the White Swan- “the virginal girl, pure and sweet”?
How Long Has Nina Been Mentally Ill?
As Nina begins her journey towards perfection, her mental state deteriorates significantly. With every fall, she descends further into madness, which brings her nearer to the thing that has eluded her for so long. She inches closer to perfection and surrenders all control of her reality. But, how much of control did she have to begin with?
Thomas says that even though she is precise in her actions, she is also very frigid. She has always tried to perfect every move but never allowed to let her body run wild. As discussed above, it is fair to say that this fretting and fussing is the result of her upbringing. Her mother comments on everything she has to do or say or even eat, and she has inherited this trait. Moreover, she has first-hand seen the career of a failed ballerina in her mother and doesn’t want to end up like her, which makes her work even harder. Safe to say, this obsession with perfection is nothing new for her.
We see the signs early on, even before she gets the part of the Swan Queen. While Nina is going through a mental struggle, it takes a physical form as the rash on her back. She has it before the search for a new Swan is declared, and it worsens after she gives in to her mania. And this isn’t the first time she has had it. When her mother sees it, she instantly cuts her nails and makes a big fuss. She says, “you have been scratching yourself again.”
At first, we rule out this behaviour as the compulsive nature of Erica to be in control of her daughter’s life and to treat her like a child. But moving forward, a context begins to appear. If this rash symbolises Nina’s diseased state of mind and if it has happened before, then it means that Erica is aware of Nina’s hallucinations. Her daughter’s drive for perfection has broken her before; never like this time, but there are wounds and dents on her psyche.
Every time the rash appears, Erica knows that Nina is on the brink of a breakdown and so, she tends to it. When the rash is gone, Nina is back. This time, however, Nina succeeds in keeping it a secret. She tells her mother that she is fine, but in truth, the unchecked wound festers. Perhaps this is what makes Erica be more controlling. She knows how important it is for her to be the Swan Queen, but she doesn’t want her to get it by losing her sanity. She is aware that Nina’s state will only get worse if she is allowed to run free with it. This is why she wants her to come back straight home after work, this is why she doesn’t let her go on night outs and get involved with strangers. As Nina reaches her breaking point, Erica tries to keep her at home on opening night even when this is what her daughter has worked so hard for.
Is Lily the Black Swan?
In the ending credits of the film, every actor is credited not just with their role in the film, but also their counterparts in Swan Lake itself. While Natalie Portman gets to be the Swan Queen, Mila Kunis is the one credited with the Black Swan. In accordance with the story of the ballet, it is the evil twin who takes everything away from Odette, but nothing of such sort happens with Nina. She does feel threatened by Lily, but the latter never really takes anything away from her. Nina thinks that she wants to steal her role, but then, as Thomas says, every other girl wants that. Lily doesn’t even try to sabotage anything, so what makes her the Black Swan? Is it justifiable to call her that?
The true Black Swan of this film is Nina’s mental illness. Be it schizophrenia, or multiple personality disorder, or whatever else you want to call it, this is the only problem in her life. This is the thing that takes away everything, even her own self. Nina had been suffering before she met Lily, but with her, she finds a face for her fears. In this respect, she is like her mother, finding someone else to blame for her own flaws.
But as her condition gets worse, the mask of Lily, too, begins to disappear. The faint resemblance that they had begins to take her own form, sharper and more defined with every hallucination. The part that she had suppressed for so long is let loose and in the end, she gives in to it. With the Black Swan manifesting itself on the stage physically, her emotional transformation is completed too.
The Ending: Did Nina Die?
A piece at a time, the psychological toll chips away Nina’s mental balance, and her cocooned form is finally morphed into the character she had been trying so hard to embody. At first, she had been afraid of this transformation. She had been concerned about the rash; she had been horrified when a feather comes out of it when her legs crack, and she watches herself literally turning into a swan. Even while performing on stage as the Swan Queen, she had not fully embraced it.
It was only after she stabs her doppelganger, whom she believes to be Lily, that she completes the transformation. This marks the point of no return for her when she can’t go back to being the White Swan again. Because she has killed her. The Black Swan has declared that it is her turn now. When she performs as Odile, she embraces the feathers growing on her body. In fact, she revels in it. She lets it take over her until they turn into full-fledged wings, and she receives thunderous applause from the audience.
She returns to her room and gets ready for the next act, but is taken aback when Lily shows up to congratulate her. This is when Nina realises that Lily had never been into her room, they never had the fight, she never stabbed her. In fact, it was herself that she had sabotaged. She destroyed herself. This realisation brings her back to reality and she, once again, inhabits the sorrow and vulnerability of the White Swan. As the Swan falls to her death, the hall is deafened by applause, and Thomas and the crew surround her to shower their congratulations, Lily notices the wound. Nina declares that she was perfect and the scene fades into the white light.
Does this mean that Nina is dead? We don’t actually see her die, she is just wounded, so we can’t be sure of it. Maybe the blurred lights mean that she fell unconscious, maybe she received timely help and was saved. Or maybe, she succumbed to her wounds and died. But her mental state does make us question the nature of the wound. Was it exaggerated? Was it even there? The fight she has with Lily is just a hallucination, and she later discovers that she had stabbed herself. But maybe, she never did stab herself. No one else enters in her room after the fight, so we don’t have a second perspective of the situation. No one sees the shattered glass, no one even sees the wound when she is on stage. Also, she hadn’t been dancing alone.
The dance moves involved her male companion to hold her and touch her on what should have been the wounded area. All this time, he doesn’t feel the glass shard in her belly? Also, if it had been a fatal injury, how could she dance with such ferocity on stage? Perhaps, she had imagined the stabbing part as well. This means that she is not hurt and will be fine, though she might need to get help for her hallucinations.
Even though this makes sense, there is the question of Lily and everyone else seeing the wound in the end. Was this a hallucination too? Thomas calls her “my little princess”, which she thinks a compliment of the highest order from him, considering he only called Beth with this title. Nina wanted to be perfect like Beth, she wanted what her predecessor had, from her role to her lipstick to her compliment. Maybe this wound was the figment of the “sacrifice” she needed to make to be perfect.
How she was able to dance without any reaction to the wound could be explained as the adrenaline, and the lack of pain could be due to the sheer ignorance of her injury. (Brain does work in mysterious ways!) The Black Swan wasn’t hurt, right? It was the White Swan she had stabbed, and it is only after she reverts to playing Odette that Nina realises what she has done to herself.
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