I’m grateful I read a tabloid describing Black Swan as a “psychosexual thriller” before I saw it. For this film’s audiences, the Freudian lens functions as a pair of 3D goggles, giving the onscreen images depth, veracity and resonance.
The “thriller” classification is accurate, but no monsters or ghosts roam the screen; inner demons plague Darren Aronofsky’s latest creation. The blood that spurts from Nina’s (Natalie Portman) pores is not mere somatic injury, but the cascading escape of a violent and teeming unconscious.
Nina, a ballerina desperate for a lead role in her company’s upcoming production of Swan Lake, has never quite made the pivotal break from her creepily controlling mother (Barbara Hershey). Inability to detach the symbolic umbilical cord is always a problem for parents, but this scenario takes the psychoanalytical paradigm further: She’s a stage mom, attempting to recapture her unfulfilled dancer dreams by vicariously living through Nina.
Such support is tenuous, ambivalent at best, because of the rivalry Nina’s mother has established with her daughter. She fears that Nina will go further than she did and finally leave home in her 20s. In one scene, she asks Nina if the company’s director (Vincent Cassel), whom she’s been working with late nights, has “tried anything” with her. Behind her feigned concern for her daughter’s wellbeing is resentment of her youth and beauty.
In turn, Nina, the oldest member of the company, envies the freshness and spunk of its newest addition, Lily (Mila Kunis). A straightedge, neurotic Nice Girl, Nina dreads that her struggle to dance the part of the seductive, lustful Black Swan, a character Lily assumes with ease, will keep her away from the role.
But the White Swan, the protagonist with the aforementioned dark alter ego, is a piece of cake for Nina. The problem is, the lead dancer has to perform both. The parallel is clear: these are two sides of Nina. Paradoxically, she must tap into her inner Loose Girl in order to achieve a dream driven by her Nice Girl perfectionism.
Initially, Nina’s repressed passion punctures small pores through her rigid exterior, allowing breathing room. Her id seems under control, constricted to the stage.
Then the dam breaks.
Nina’s Black Swan persona spills with a violent vengeance into every area of her life, along with her unstoppable rage toward her mother, the one who gave birth to this repression.
The more immoral Nina’s actions, the more satisfaction one feels for her. This fury lies latent inside all our psyches.
Her former self, an echo of her ostensibly prudish mother’s scoldings, retaliates with piercing guilt (literally, hence, blood). The black and white swans haunt each other. These warring entities are too indoctrinated into the virgin/whore dichotomy to conjoin in one body. Nina cannot imagine a self that is at once wholesome and full of desire.
And once a former Nice Girl has released her sexual appetite and hunger for freedom, there is no returning to the former life she built her sense of self around.
Nina’s deepest jealousies and fears are projected onto her surroundings. She can find no refuge; her inner torture follows wherever she goes. It becomes unclear the violent sights she witnesses throughout the film are actual events mere hauntings of her psyche.
The force of Nina’s formerly unacknowledged yearnings — equally evident in the momentum of her twirls, several erotic encounters with the mentor who coaxed her dark side out, and the more classically gruesome images she ambiguously witnesses or hallucinates — is what makes the film terrifying.
It’s just about that time of year when heartwarming holiday movies have left us all overheated. Black Swan is spine chilling and mindboggling instead.