Themes in the Movie Black Swan
Many theatergoers leave this film utterly confused, with more questions than answers. Others, like my friends, just didn't care for its frightening images and "unnecessarily macabre" scenes. But, let's take a second look at this exquisite art piece that accurately articulates a girl's journey into womanhood. There is an internal/external struggle that touches upon the duality of women's lives. Are we prepared for an ensuing separation from that most delicate of bonds, that of leaving our mothers to become ourselves, fully integrating the "nice" and "not-so-nice" aspects of who we really are? How much are we willing to sacrifice to achieve success?
As the audience soon learns, Nina exercises control to a disturbing degree. Despite the appearance of glamour in her profession, she does little more than ride trains back and forth to the studio. Home is an apartment she shares with her mother, Erica. The rabbit warren of dark halls and closed doors mirrors her repression, secrets, and bottled-up emotions. Her bedroom is still a soft girlish pink, full of stuffed animals and speaks volumes of arrested development. Her wardrobe is white, cream, pink, and other pale shades, emphasizing her still passive, unassuming personality. She calls her mother "Mommy" and shares every mundane detail of her life, their sparse meals, toe shoe preparations, and rehearsals.
When newcomer Lily barges into the dance studio and interrupts Nina's audition for the Swan Queen role at a crucial point, a triangle is introduced among the two of them and the art director that involves lust, passion, competition, manipulation, seduction and perhaps a murder. The audience is never quite certain. Adding to the conflict, the ballet master turns the introduction of Nina as the new principal dancer into an opportunity to force the retirement of Beth, the company's aging 'swan,' no longer fresh and new.
It's a juicy setup for director Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Pi) to weave various themes into the film including the nature of female friendship and competition, the mother/daughter relationship, sexual harassment, lesbian relationships, the transition from girlhood to womanhood, the pursuit of perfection, aging and women, and female self-hatred. All of Nina's relationships carefully mine the themes at so many levels that the perspectives become completely enmeshed and it's often not clear what's real and what's imagined.
In the mother, we see a woman who appears supportive but who has animosity toward her daughter seeping beneath her craggy surface. Erica alternately supports Nina and undermines her; she lives vicariously through her, at the same time resenting her achievements; she pushes her forward yet continually infantilizes the emerging woman in her daughter.
In the friendship with Lily we see both liberation and potential destruction. We are not sure if the attraction is platonic or sexual. Is Nina's interest in Lily an admiration of her carefree passion-filled lifestyle, or does she need to keep tabs on Lily out of fear that she will replace her as Nina replaced the aging dancer? What is clear to me is that Lily represents an amalgam of the nurturer and the destroyer parts of a woman's personality. The parts that a girl must understand about herself, tame, and integrate gracefully in order to become a fully self-actualized person.
In Thomas the ballet master, we see a strong mentor, a ruthless artistic director bent on molding his piece of art, a sexual predator who harasses and seduces women to dominate and control them, and a manipulative boss who sees what company members are doing, but uses them as a means to his end.
In Beth and the ballet setting, we see Nina's empathy for her as a microcosm of society that shows its disdain for aging females. Eager to wear the star's mantle, Nina steals her lipstick and personal effects to artificially harness her power. But Nina's guilt over shining brighter than her friends and aging rival builds until it erupts into physical trauma. Are the happenings real or imaginings of these tightly held deep-seated feelings? Then, underlying it all is the idea that girls must be perfect at any cost, or they must consider themselves bad. Nina physically mutilates herself as punishment and to release the pain, fear, and emptiness that this pursuit has brought.
As Nina transitions from an innocent to worldly woman where drinking, drugging, and hooking up with either sex becomes the norm, her clothing becomes darker, her makeup more severe. This is pure Gothic storytelling: suppression, betrayal, desire, guilt and achievement. But, it brilliantly addresses how we women fear our own power and abilities, believing that if we fully exercise both, we will destroy and alienate those around us, including ourselves. Can we still be good and be successful? Will we be hated and despised if we go for what we want with all that we have? Will it be enough just to achieve it?
Who among us hasn't struggled with being a mother or a daughter, or perhaps both? It takes strength as a woman to really like what you see deep within yourself, go it alone and leave your mother's 'home.' And it takes an even stronger woman to keep following your own dream, while allowing your daughter to seek a different one. And applaud loudly when she does.