The Black Swan

Natalie Portman deftly defies the genre conventions of what would otherwise be a predictable, unsettling melodrama about an unhinged ballet dancer who goes not so quietly crazy just as her career takes off. Because of Portman’s uncanny empathy for her character, the over-the-top camera angles and story lines of Darren Aronofsky’s The Black Swan aren’t quite as irritating as they might be without a lead actor who brings such nuanced insight and intuition to the role.

Portman’s plays Nina, an utterly, single-mindedly devoted ballerina with a prestigious New York City ballet company. Her technique is perfect but she lacks the requisite passion for the leading roles. The company’s artistic director, a French-accented martinet named “Thomas” (but pronounced “Tomah”), rewards Nina by casting her as the white and the black swan in his “avant-garde” production of Swan Lake, but only after he attacks her sexually and she bites his lips defending herself in response.

One of the film’s most interesting insights is into the twisted relationship between male ballet impresarios and their female dancers. Vincent Cassel plays Thomas with a cruel sneer in his upper lip and a leer in his eyes as he challenges Nina to give up her quest for perfection so that she might convincingly portray the evil and seductive Black Swan with the wild abandon he conceives for the role. That he uses his own body against hers to force her to find her strength is part of what Aronofsky’s film wants to critique, but also partly what makes watching it uncomfortable. Thomas doesn’t even pretend there’s any other way to “get” the performance he wants from his star but to sexually humiliate her publicly and to push her physical boundaries privately. Nina wants the role so badly she’ll do anything to get it and then keep it, even as she becomes more and more deranged.As her relationship with Thomas gets more and more entwined, she begins to suffer from a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, idealizing and even identifying with Thomas and his mercurial cruelty.

Haunting the proceedings as a cautionary object lesson is Beth (Winona Ryder), the aging (that is, over 30), once-glorious star of the company who’s forced into retirement so that Nina can take her place. All the dancers want to be Beth; when Nina sneaks into the older woman’s dressing room before her star casting is announced, she steals Beth’s lipstick, a pack of cigarettes, and a letter opener, totemic objects that Nina carries as talismans toward her own success.

But Beth’s precipitous tumble from the top to the bottom turns ugly when she won’t go gracefully into retirement. Instead, she causes a scene at a benefit party and then throws herself into New York City traffic, landing in a lonely hospital room where she languishes with ugly, disfiguring and debilitating scars. She sits in a wheelchair, her head canted down at a painful angle as she contemplates the cruelties of fate. Sadly, Ryder’s shrewish portrayal of the vanquished star mirrors too closely the details of her own career, and her one-dimensional, caricatured acting doesn’t help redeem her performance or the character. Nina, fascinated by the woman she’s replacing, visits Beth in her hospital room as some sort of weird penance for precipitating the star’s fate, but the visits aren’t instructive so much as increasingly macabre and violent as Nina’s reality begins to shatter.

Aronofsky signals his vision of his own leading lady with heavy-handed shots of Portman fragmented and multiplied by the various mirrors in which her life is continually reflected. In the claustrophobic apartment she shares with her equally insane mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), a mirror by the front door is cut into pie-shaped wedges that breaks Nina’s image into pieces, and the three-sided mirror in which she practices and obsessively laces and re-laces her toe shoes ensures that even at home, she’s always onstage.

Nina’s mother, it seems, was a corps member herself before she stopped dancing to raise Nina. No father is evident, just the suffocating co-dependency of two women who represent different generations of the same dream. Erica both wants Nina to succeed and desperately needs her to fail, so that her daughter will cling to her, imprisoned in the child-like state Erica insists on preserving.Nina’s bedroom is lined with rows of white and pink stuffed animals that stare down at her bed, and every night, she goes to sleep with the tinny music box sounds of “Swan Lake” that her mother sets in motion to soothe her. Erica intrudes on Nina’s privacy, checking the ever-worsening rash that blooms across her daughter’s back, chiding her for mutilating herself and at the same time, helping Nina hide her wounds. When Nina is cast in the lead role in Swan Lake, Erica doesn’t set out to sabotage her success, but willingly abets Nina’s fast downward spiral when it begins.

The real agent of Nina’s downfall is the woman who might otherwise be her savior. Lily (a stunning Mila Kunis) arrives in the company from LA full of self-confident sexuality and the distinctly unballet-like languor of the west coast. Nina catches a glimpse of her first on a subway, distracted from her own image in its Plexiglas windows by Lily’s hair and the headphones she wears. Lily makes her first appearance at the studio by banging open and closed the door while Nina is dancing, causing her to stumble in her audition for Swan Lake. But Lily’s laxity proves a refreshing counter-balance to a ballet world in which young women are wound tight, can’t eat, throw up what they do get down, and like Nina, are so disciplined to be perfect that they have no lives outside their dancing.

Lily, the film’s own black swan, loves sensuality and sexuality in equal measure. After she and Nina get off to a rocky start, Lily visits Nina at home, shocking both her and Erica with her brashness.Undone by Erica’s haranguing, Nina impulsively goes to a bar with Lily, where she’s persuaded to take a disinhibiting drug that Lily insists will just relax her and only last for two hours, “most.”Tempted by her desire to be free of her mother, and by Thomas’s insistence that she “touch herself” as homework to help her loosen up, Nina lets Lily drug her cocktail and gets very uninhibited indeed.

The two women flirt with men who are deeply disinterested in ballet—to Nina’s shock, since the art forms her entire world—then dance together wildly in a scene shot in pink light and edited frenetically to represent Nina’s descent into drug-induced ecstasy. The evening ends when Lily makes a pass at Nina in a taxi, and Nina brings her home, to the shock and dismay of Erica, who tries to batter down her bedroom door while the two young women have very wild, hot, and explicit sex.

The sex scene is the film’s pivot point, as it demonstrates how much Nina represses for her art, and how passionate indeed she can be. High as a kite, Nina won’t stand for her mother’s interdictions, and pulls Lily into her bedroom, where they rip off one another’s clothes and practically swallow each other’s tongues. Aronofsky films and edits this scene, too, with close-ups of body parts and quick jump cuts that heighten the intensity, until he finally focuses in on Nina’s sexual awakening under Lily’s ministrations. The scene reveals that other side of the carefully controlled artist is a young woman of painful depth and desire, who revels in just the kind of passion Thomas has been so eager to induce.

But the next morning, things go quickly awry. Lily is gone, but the pole Nina uses to keep her bedroom door propped closed hasn’t been disturbed. Nina wakes hung-over and late for rehearsal, where she finds Lily already in costume, performing in her role. Immediately, Lily becomes a palpable threat to Nina’s ascendancy, and when Nina refers to their evening together, Lily accuses her of having a “lezzie wet dream,” and denies that anything happened. From there, Nina’s sanity teeters ever closer to the brink, and Aronofsky plays even more fast and loose with what’s real for her and what’s real for us.

From the film’s beginning, moments that seem true are suddenly proven false. In the bathroom of the ballet benefit party, Nina’s ragged cuticles begin to bleed and she can’t get them to stop, eventually peeling a three-inch strip of flesh from her finger. But when she’s interrupted by, as it happens, Lily knocking on the door, Nina looks down to see her finger miraculously healed. This girl bleeds terribly—her toenails break from dancing on them, her back bleeds from scratching, and blood continually reddens the water in which she bathes and washes. But we’re never sure if her wounds are real, and neither, it seems, is Nina.

[Spoiler alert.] In fact, in the film’s climactic scene, Nina seems to kill Lily in a violent rage, shattering her dressing room’s full-length mirror with her rival’s head and then dragging her body onto the cold tile of her bathroom floor. When Lily’s blood seeps under the door, Nina covers it with a towel and goes off to triumphantly perform the second act of Swan Lake, where she nails her performance as the black swan with galvanizing passion and rage, murderous in her seductress’s make-up.

But when she returns to her dressing room to dress for the ballet’s third and final act, Lily comes knocking on her door to compliment Nina’s performance. The body in the bathroom is gone and so is the blood. Nina redresses herself in her white swan costume, but as she pulls on her white feathers, she finds in her own abdomen the seeping red wound she thought she’d inflicted in Lily’s.With morbid fascination and a strange glint of triumph, she retracts the shard of broken mirror she seemed to have used to kill her enemy.

As she returns to the stage to finish the ballet exultantly, we’re not sure if this, too, is a hallucination. The white swan falls to her death and Nina falls to the mattress that catches her behind the set, where her fellow dancers and Thomas surround her, extolling her glory and her talent. He calls her “little princess,” the affectionate but diminishing name he once used for Beth (just as Lily predicted he would), then notices with dismay that her white costume is marred by a spreading stain of very red blood. But as she lies there, apparently dying, Nina says both “I was perfect” and “I felt it,” fulfilling her own expectations and Thomas’s wish.

In Aronofsky’s vision, she’s also finally become a woman, her technical perfection infused with the reckless passion of adulthood and her cocoon-like innocence stained with the menstrual-like blood of her masochistic wound. The swan in the story dies, and while it’s not clear if Nina survives or not, we’re supposed to think she’s at the very least killed off the part of herself that held her too-adult passion and desire at bay.

I suppose Aronofsky also wants us to consider the depravity of those who give themselves to an art that gives so little in return. The rewards, The Black Swan suggests, are fleeting, ephemeral evenings of triumph and applause, which fades too quickly as ballet dancers inevitably age. As my film-going companion, Stacy, pointed out, adoring fans are faceless and strangely unrepresented in the film. Nina peeks out at the audience before she performs, but it’s really the adoration of her colleagues that she craves and finally achieves when they surround her fallen body at the film’s end.

Aronofsky indicts the cruelty through which Thomas realizes his vision of Swan Lake by manipulating the already unstable Nina, but the writer-director’s camera also enjoys a bit too much how the story makes Nina suffer, and happily represents her as a martyr to her art.

Thriller conventions bring The Black Swan its rather perverse excitement, as Aronofsky keeps the viewer off balance, like Nina, through quick confusing cuts to a murky woman who keeps turning up in the troubled young woman’s fantasy/reality. When Nina’s masturbating, following Thomas’s instructions to “loosen up,” nearly at climax she turns her head and sees another woman sitting on the chair in her bedroom, watching her. The cut happens so quickly, it’s not clear if the woman is Erica, the mother, or another young woman whose face and figure recurs in Nina’s dreams/fantasies, who may or may not be a younger Erica or some other Nina-style doppelganger. I kept expecting some previous trauma that would explain Nina’s insanity, but Aronofsky never delivers a back-story to illuminate her strange psychology. That choice heightens the film’s suggestion that it’s her single-minded dedication to art—encouraged by her similarly obsessed mother—that’s driven Nina mad.

Barbara Hershey is convincing as the over-bearing, bitter mother who watches her daughter achieve the career she always wanted. Erica lives through Nina and resents her deeply, calling incessantly on Nina’s cellphone, which displays “MOM” in insistent capital letters as the phone bleats plaintively. Erica doesn’t seem to be employed, but instead sits alone in a small room in their apartment (how these two afford a three-bedroom flat in Manhattan is never explained), creating Munch-like paintings of her own (or is it Nina’s?) face, images that seem to scream and follow Nina with their eyes when she peeks into the room. Erica and Nina’s bond is both incestuous and ambivalent, as they’re attracted and repulsed by everything they mean to one another.

Nina’s fantasy hook-up with Lily also seems to sublimate her strange push-pull relationship with Erica, while at the same time, to represent the entirely incestuous, homosocial, female-dominated world of ballet. Strangely, though, it’s also a heterosexual world, in Aronofsky’s conception. Lily enflames Nina’s jealousy during a performance when she flirts with the callous guy who’s dancing the white swan’s romantic object. The only obvious gay man in this world is the accompanist, who finally slams the lid on his piano after hours of solo rehearsing with Nina, telling her superciliously that he has a life (she, clearly, doesn’t) and leaving her in the dark as the building’s lights shut down.

What, finally, to make of The Black Swan? Aronofsky has created an absorbing, if sometimes repellent, Grand Guignol of a film about artistic cruelty and excess, one that might be laughable if the leading performances (Portman, Kunis, Cassel, and Hershey, especially) weren’t so heart-felt, layered, and persuasive. Portman’s shattered poise, shaky vulnerability, masterful artistry, and desperate desire for both success and real connection make Nina a character who’s difficult to wrest your eyes from. Even as Aronofsky dismantles the foundation of her world and her sanity, and keeps the viewer equally unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, Portman holds us squarely on Nina’s side, hoping she’ll be victorious against all the forces lined up against her.

Too bad that Nina’s victory requires a self-mutilation so extreme, she can only succeed by succumbing to her own death. That’s a message that’s not good for the girls.

The Feminist Spectator

Link to original post on Blogspot.

62 thoughts on “The Black Swan

  1. Wonderful review, but you surely meant to say that the young men were “uninterested” in the ballet, not “disinterested.”

    Unsolicited editor

  2. Excellent post about a movie I am highly ambivalent about. Somehow, the film grows in my estimation if I interpret Hershey, Kunis and Ryder’s characters as partial or complete figments of Nina’s imagination (thus: Hershey as unsublimated superego; Kunis as sweet, concerned colleague/acquaintance and nothing more; Ryder as an object lesson in what not to become). This somehow fleshes out the otherwise frustratingly one-dimensional characters. But the overarching themes are disappointing in their lack of depth: art is very hard; women are fragile; men are pigs. And lesbian scenes in Hollywood remain indicative of increasingly debauched insanity. The slick style and cinematographic gimmicks of this film stick with me far more than the film itself does, and thus I found the film interesting, but ultimately maddeningly incomplete.

  3. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this movie. It touched on a lot of points that I had been considering, especially examining the issues around the portrayal of this young woman.

  4. Thomas was a classic mind-f–cker! The over-the-top images show Aronofsky to lack originality and resort to horror movie cliches.
    The mother was a classic stage mom – usually with the same psychological motives…..

    The only saving grace were the performances of Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, though I could not get Erica Kane from soap opera All My Children out of my head while watching Natalie perform.

    This is a film riddled with male and female stereotypes – a commercial and cynical look at a sub-culture which bewitches little girls who fantasize about being beautiful ballerinas!

  5. Thanks for these posts, everyone. To the person who pointed out that I probably meant “uninterested,” not “disinterested”–indeed. One of my own quirks is to describe usually myself as “deeply disinterested” in something, because I like the alliteration, but that shouldn’t have migrated to the blog.

    For Liz, above, I think you’re exactly right about this. Seeing the film as a dream in which all the characters represent Nina makes more sense than trying to read it on a realistic level. And re lesbian scenes in Hollywood, well, that one, in particular, couldn’t have been more voyeuristic. I do, though, like the idea that Nina finally accesses her passion with another woman, and not Thomas (god forbid). Darren Aronofsky’s depictions of women are usually problematic–see, for only one instance, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM . . .

  6. I wish we could point out more how much of a bad message this movie is sending to young girls. Having a girl they will obviously relate to go through being molested, bulimia, self-mutilation, and suicide risk and succumbing to these things let alone not seeking help for them is a terrible message to send to young women. In one scene Lily even catches her crying and offers to help, but Nina refuses. I so desperately wanted her to come out and say that she got molested right then so the whole mess could be avoided.

  7. Did we all see the same movie?! I am personally shocked that so many people like this movie and actually angry that it will win so many awards. Aside from the fact that it’s not scary or interesting in the least, to say it’s “Too bad that Nina’s victory requires a self-mutilation so extreme, she can only succeed by succumbing to her own death. That’s a message that’s not good for the girls”, is not the only thing that is a bad message. The movie also says women are all one dimensional be it bitter and over-bearing, or frigid, or free-wheeling and that it is perfectly acceptable to be told to masturbate for homework and be molested by your mentor and that the worth of a woman is whether or not she’s fuckable. This girl is fragile and abused and if Natalie Portman wasn’t so beautiful to look at people might actually see past her pretty face and graceful arms to see this movie for the crap that it is.

  8. Jill,

    Thanks for this insightful review. I found it after retracing the steps of some folks who found my known review. It was refreshing to read your perspective on this incredible piece of art, and I appreciate the mission you’re on.

    Also, as indicated in one or more above comments, thinking that films (and works of art and literature in general) have a definitive “message” is dangerous.

  9. Thanks for these comments, Anonymous (above) and Richard. For Anonymous, I appreciate your vehement sentiments, and for Richard, thanks, too, for reading and for writing in response.

    Re seeing films and art in general as having definitive messages, per Richard’s comment: I guess I don’t believe any work of art has a “definitive” message. But one of the things I appreciate about all of these comments about this very complicated film is that people do indeed derive various meanings from THE BLACK SWAN. Art “tells” us things about who we are and who we should be, and although what “message” this particular film advances might be a point of disagreement (or discussion), I do think it does send various messages, to women and to young would-be ballerinas that I, personally, agree are pernicious.

    For exactly that reason, though, I think it’s important to see THE BLACK SWAN, and to comment on it, debate it, and write about it, so that it can become part of a larger cultural conversation and debate about what it “says” and “does.”

    Thanks for engaging here. I’m always happy when a post prompts contention and disagreements. All best, jd

  10. I thought this movie would be good but, being a ballet dancer, it was just a bit too stereotypical. No, most dancers who make it to a company do not live with their mothers in a pink room full of stuffed animals. They are not little shaking wimps either, they’d never be able to survive that far. It also made it seem like all dancers have bulimia and that it is encouraged. No one would be able to dance so intensely and at such a high level with an eating disorder for long. Dancing as a career itself keeps weight off.
    I also was a little disappointed in how Nina was portrayed as being extremely naive. You can be innocent without being totally naive. I agree with some other people on here that the characters were really one-dimensional. There was basically no true “good” in anyone since they all had ulterior motives which sent the message that there is never any hope. It was definitely a f***ed up movie in a lot of ways and the way the sexual acts were portrayed were a bit messed up. The movie basically sent the message that anything sexual is evil and for the people who were happy for the lesbian scene, it was kind of demented. It was presented as an evil being corrupting an innocent person, hence the white swan and black swan. It also sent the message that woman can only figure out anything sexual if they are told to or if they are “corrupted”.
    I think the only reason the movie was any degree of good was the enchanting base story of Swan Lake and the music which is also from Swan Lake. For me, it was sad to see such a beloved magic story be ruined by a frigid, cliche and one-dimensional movie.
    In the end, the movie didn’t explain itself and left me feeling it was incomplete. It seemed as though a bunch of randomness was thrown together without much thought or actual knowledge or wisdom. I like a tad bit more creativity in my movies.

  11. Instead of a “message,” I often wonder about “intention.” What was Aronofsky’s artistic vision for this film? Did he INTEND to portray stereotypes to reveal the obvious in an “emotional distancing” way? (For examples, look to Brecht for drama, or The Dave Chappelle Show for comedy).

    Aronofsky is following genre conventions, not necessarily political motivations.

    I like to sometimes play a game in which I ask myself, “What would Jane Campion’s vision look like?” or “What would Catherine Breillat’s vision look like?” or even “What would Sophia Coppolla’s vision look like?”

    Notice who the producers are, the writers, and the director…I tend to raise my ears when I recognize a female-protagonist-centered film is surrounded by a majority gender.

  12. I just saw the film tonight and appreciate both the review and all the comments. The movie grabbed me–perhaps mesmerized me– while I remained critical and these comments are helping me work my thoughts out. JD I appreciate your points about the different messages that audiences receive *irrespective* of the director’s “intentions.” This is because Aronofsky *is* playing on genre conventions-cum-cliches as different commentators above point out. In terms of women, the genre-conventions are not addressed critically but indulged: great point about the voyeurism of the “lesbian” scene as classic symbol of debauchery. In the same vein, I loved the performances including Portman’s.Yet somehow rather than transcend the cliches by breathing life into them–specifically the feminity-through- self-mutilation-idea–it’s easier to absorb ourselves with a depoliticized notion of individual suffering, an aestheticized notion of “suffering for art”,
    and a connection to everyday patriarchal extreme make-overs is mystified. I thought that the
    sexualized pygmalianish theme–the Thomas and Nina relation- was also indulged and eroticized by the director rather than looked at critically. I like the idea of the different female characters being figments of the same female individual’s dream: in that case the relation(s) of the character to her self are incestuous, porno-lesbian-sexual, and/or murderous which goes some way to mystifying the masculinist aesthetic and social order in/through which femininity is constructed. Thomas is dealt with very lightly–as controlling and patronizing but yet still seductive and appealing. (Self)-Destruction in the film is shown to be primarily rooted in feminine pathology. I can not help but see the image of Isabelle Caro, the super model who just died of anorexia, her cadaverous face and body. And then the image from pop culture oldie Stepford Wives, the film, where the protagonist is stabbed by the Stepford version of her. Political motivations can come in the form of mass produced fantasy/nightmare as much as in didactic forms. These are just scattered thoughts. I’m grateful to find a feminist forum on films on the net; I don’t know why I haven’t found this before. thanks.

  13. Kathy, thanks so much for these smart comments. The connection to Isabelle Caro is very insightful (and sad); your point about how lightly the Thomas/Nina relationship is dealt with is also smart; and your suggestion that self-destruction in the film is rooted in feminine pathology is too true. Thanks for engaging, all best, jd

  14. i’m so glad to have found this blog! i just watched this movie today and it upset me so deeply, i’ve been crying off and on since and just feel really angry and freaked-out. i really appreciate many things said by jill and comments, you all have helped me to feel validated in my intense emotional response to this film.

    i love natalie portman, she is one of my favorite actresses, and i wish i could talk to her about this role. as a woman who has experienced issues with mental health, including sexual assault, incest, eating disorders, self-mutilation (the same as hers, in fact), and very similar hallucinations, The Black Swan hit very close to home. i was also a ballerina for eight years, although never professional, and never under a man.

    i feel very strongly that nina’s suffering is fetishized by these men (director, writers, producers), warped into something ‘beautiful’ (read: aesthetically pleasing by our sick cultural standards) and exploited for financial gain… much as thomas does in the movie. he sexually assaults her repeatedly, supposedly to help her with character development, and then screams at her for having low self-esteem! really, he should be GLAD she has low self-esteem or he would’ve gotten a good hard kick in the balls for pulling that s***.

    it makes me sick! why doesn’t anyone really want to help her? she is surrounded by predators and enablers, she has no true friends or allies, people are feeding off of her suffering. and this is supposed to be beautiful and artistic, and really, i think, turn people on. if there’s one thing i know about this culture, it’s that emaciated, ‘helpless’ women are to be considered the most attractive. if they hate themselves and take sexual assault as a routine part of life, so much the better; especially if they are afraid of asking for support or coming out about their experiences for fear of being stigmatized. victimization all the way.

    nina was “perfect” indeed, and it killed her.

  15. Black Swan struck me as a feminist movie, so I’m finding both the post and the comments very interesting.

    I agree that Nina’s exploitation and self-sacrifice were disturbing, but I don’t believe that Aronofsky was touting them as “beautiful”, even if Nina herself thought they were. I interpreted the movie as a struggle with very real female vices and fears. Just as the Wrestler dealt with a man’s response to stereotypical male vices (excess, cynicism, cowardice, laziness), Black Swan dealt with what are more often female vices (overeagerness to please, fear, frigidity). I think the point of both of movies is that we must overcome our inherent fears to accomplish anything in life. The movie may have over-generalized, but I don’t think it was sexist – as a woman, I related much more to Nina’s fears than I did to the problems in the Wrestler, which might mean the generalizations are also a little bit true.

    Also, I don’t necessarily know that Aronofsky intended the audience to think Nina was successful in the end. It’s too easy and common for women to give up everything of themselves – to their work, their children, their spouses and friends. Self-sacrifice might come naturally to us, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. Like Requiem for a Dream, I think Black Swan can also be interpreted as a caution against giving up too much of ourselves, to anything or anyone. Nina was strong enough to triumph in her quest, but at too great a cost. I saw the movie as a tribute to feminism and artists, but also a warning.

  16. In general, I long for rich characters and complex relationships with compelling stories. This film did not deliver this. However, very few do. Meanwhile, I did enjoy The Black Swan. I am forever grateful to see classic arts in anything mainstream, and this was done well-enough.

    The characters were archtypes, and that was disappointing but perhaps essential. Considering the age of Nina and the psychosis she experienced, it appeared that she may very well have been developing schizophrenia with psychotic features. This was accelerated when introduced to drugs, which is common.

    Versus seeing these characters as sterotypes, I think it is more accurate to view them as characatures of individuals who can be found in the professional world of classical art (ballet, opera, orchestra, etc.). If children will be exposed to this film, which I don’t think would be most appropriate, then parents indeed have a responsibility to discuss with these children the destructive and a-typical characters’ behaviors. This is not to be confused with the work, dedication, health and wellness required for a long-lived, successful and fulfilling career in the high arts.

    I was especially moved by the paragraph in your critique where you discussed the faceless audience. That it is those who understand the art at it’s most intimate level from whom you seek praise and approval. The applause is nice, sure, but it fades in the blink of an eye. The true joy in performance comes from everything else.

  17. I saw the movie last night only because of the hype surrounding it in the media. The film was something i had never seen. It captvated me in such a way that i actually wanted to become a ballerina. I have never owned a stuffed animal so that coming from me has to mean something. My point is, good or bad example the job was well done and influenced me to become more cautious of my life because one day i shall be perfect.

  18. I just saw this movie last night and thought it was sickening. It sounded good and interesting, because I like creative movies, but it was just about the sex. Some scenes were very unneccessary (like that old perv in the subway, eww) and nothing was explained in the end. Like did Wiona Ryder really jab her face, and why did natalie have bloody hands and nail file?) Bunch of Random stuff put together and not really thought about. Thay could of went a whole different direction with this movie – like explaining why Natalie was crazy, and what was the story with the mother being so obsessive? Instead it just focused on how Nina was a naive good girl that needed to be more like Lily (which was a total whore) to be complete. Sending a message that you need to be bad to be “in”. And the lesbian scene was like the main focus to please the man watching and think this movie is “so hot” or something. And the proffessor totally molested her and it was ok! Because it seemed like he did it to everybody he trained and he got away with it. So sick. While I enjoyed the costumes and music and the actual ballet, I was so dissapointed and deeply disturbed by this and the fact that this will win an award. From the coments I am reading here many ppl liked the movie and that makes me sad. Because as a society, we will gobble up anything that they throw at us and since it has lot of sexually charged content it must be good. I can’t believe Natalie agreed to play this role. Must of been the money involed, because ppl will do anything for money. Even if it means losing your soul. WHatever happened to love and compassion? Becuase that is what is really needed in this world these days. And waht is sad is that all the movies are like this these days.

  19. I just saw this movie last night and I have to say, I really enjoyed it. I completely agree with the reviewer who stated “I agree that Nina’s exploitation and self-sacrifice were disturbing, but I don’t believe that Aronofsky was touting them as “beautiful”, even if Nina herself thought they were” and I think that people who believe that film is looking at the problems dealt with in the movie (mental disorders, drugs, molestation, suicide) in a positive light didn’t quite ‘get’ it. In the end, her situation to me wasn’t beautiful – or even tragically beautiful, beautifully tragic – it was tragic. The film spoke volumes about the need for perfection and about the manifestation of mental disorders. The world around Nina began to change and warp as she descended into madness. I saw many of the characters as becoming more one-dimensional to her, rather than in general – like they had changed due to her perception of reality.

  20. Very focused insight, Ms Dolan. Just saw this movie. I do love the movie not for its message or intention, but for my own intention–(1) I like to find out who I was closest to among the characters (I find that I am a Thomas, after a goal, getting what I want without purposeful intention to hurt anyone but ending up hurting people and so clueless about it), and (2) thinking about the characters and how randomly you can find them in this world other than the ballerina setting.

    For me as a viewer, it is simply an artistic reflection of the minds of the people who made this film, who they are and what they want to be, to borrow some of the lines of Ms. Dolan on art. So, maybe some of us think like the filmmakers, and some don’t. Thus, we either like it or not. That’s what is real about this film.

    As for its degree of influence or inspiration, watching this film and the lead character’s portrayal made me want to foray into obsessing a certain art, perhaps ballet in a long shot, but at the same time to keep in mind to get a grip and get a life afterward, hoping I can help it. I appreciate this film because it showed how consuming a person’s values could be, and how sometimes (or oftentimes?)it ends in tragedy.

  21. Consider this: What if none of the secondary female characters were real? Not the mother, not Lily, not Beth. Nina was a bit out of her mind the whole time. These “characters” were each an extension of who she felt she should be, or who she feared she might be. What do you think about the movie from this perspective?

  22. I saw the movie with two women friends who had already seen it once and extolled its virtues as “a powerful and wonderful film.” I was stunned by Nina’s descent into madness as portrayed by Natalie Portman. She’s is an accomplished actress. But the old geezer on the train? The masturbation scenes and the cliched seduction of a young woman by an older, male “teacher?” The lesbian sex? All gratuitous sex thrown in as “art.”
    It sickens me that my 19 year old daughter and her friends, male and female, think this is “cool” and to be expected and necessary in current film, and unfortunately, life.

  23. I think Vicki hit the nail on the head. None of the character’s interactions with Nina are real. I believe they are all fantasy. All of the nasty comments made to Nina by the other girls are imagined, Thomas choosing her and sexually molesting her, Lily being her understudy, her living with her mother…all of it a delusion. She is definitely a ballerina, but not one taking a lead role. Her mother is the saviour/scapegoat to all of her problems (whose mother isn’t?). When she first sees “herself” on the subway that is when Lily is born her equal, opposite self. Beth is what she does not want to become, but so obviously would. She’s never a leading lady, has no life and fantasises/has a psychotic break becoming unable to distinguish her reality from her fantasy.

    The mother is to Beth as Beth is to Nina as Nina is to Lily.

  24. I think the casting of this movie couldn’t have been better. The acting itself was so beautifully done. I too like the idea that none of these people in Nina’s life are real, but only figments of her imagination as she very quickly falls far from reality. In my opinion Nina is projecting these characters from her imagination and into her own reality. It’s what makes the most sense to me.
    However, my fascination with this movie stops there. This movie had the potential to go much farther. I don’t mind endings where have to derive your own meaning behind the story. It brings out creativity that I think lacks in most movies that are made today.
    I like sexuality in my movies as much as the next person, but I think some of those scenes in this movie were a tad unecessary. Perhaps some of them could have been left out so that the many holes in this story could be filled in. As the ending approached I was to eager I guess to find out what was happening but found I was left disappointed.

  25. I agree that the movie is a tragedy. The tragedy is that Nina is trying to be perfect, to please everybody. To be the sexy, sensual black swan for Thomas, the sweet little girl for mom, the swan princess and the black swan for the ballet audience.

    Her tragic flaw is that she buys into the value system that Thomas imposes on her. She doesn’t see Thomas for what he is, a manipulator and a sleezy old man preying on a young girl’s naivete. She just sees that he is a brilliant director. Lily, who is a bit more worldly, agrees with Nina when she says that he’s a brilliant director, but Lily qualifies it by stating something along the lines of “yeah, but he ain’t exactly cuddly.” Nina can’t see that Thomas is flawed himself and consequently she internalizes his judgments on herself and she damages herself trying to please him.

    And Nina is also torn because she still wants to be mom’s sweet little girl. Virginal, child-like. Surrounded by music boxes and stuffed animals, and mom watching over her while she sleeps.

    It isn’t all Nina’s fault that she internalizes Thomas’s demands on her. Part of it is the ballet world. It’s not enough to be an artist or a good technician, success depends very much on physical appearance. And part of what the audience wants of ballet is the angelic princess. And part of what the audience wants is the sensual seductress.

    And of course, is it just the ballet world that sets up impossible demands on women with regard to appearance and sexuality?

    Perhaps the only possible freedom can come from refusing to play the game. By refusing to judge yourself by the standards that others impose upon you. By not buying into the standards of the Tomas’es of the world.

  26. Yes, I agree with many of the other comments. I have been astonished that the reviews generally accept as “true” the depiction of Nina’s mother. Nina is nothing if not an unreliable narrator. The mother ONLY interacts with Nina. There is, as far as I can see, very little evidence to indicate that we can accept any of what we see of her mother as truth. It is far more plausible to me that Nina has a history of serious episodes of disturbed behavior (her mother refers to them throughout the film) and that that is why she still lives with her mother. To me, it demonstrates our cultural conceptions of motherhood continue to be often negative and fraught that people just accept Hershey’s character’s actions as “true.”

  27. Great review, so I have passed it along to others. I just saw the movie this evening, and remain conflicted about it. If we accept that Nina’s perfection is what Thomas dreamed for her, do we accept too his perspective on how it is to be achieved? If his means are repulsive (and please tell me that we all agree on that), are the ends?

  28. I have enjoyed everyone’s comments and reviews. I too thought Portman, Kunis and Hershey gave excellent performances. The lines between reality and Nina’s insanity become so blurred that I left the theatre not sure what had really happened. Since we know that Nina really did not stab Lily with the broken mirror but cut herself instead, did any of the scenes between just Lily and Nina really happen? Almost like a Tyler Durden Fight Club thing. Lily represents the Black Swan side of Nina that she could not release to satisfy Thomas until Lily helped her. There is no interaction between Erica and Lily to assure me that Lily went to the bar with Nina and then back to her apartment for the sex scene. If not, why is the stick still in the door the next morning? When Nina sees Thomas and Lily having sex after practice, this could be Nina’s fractured self watching herself with Thomas. Doesn’t matter because the result is still the same and the message is still the same.

  29. I am struck by so many of the comments who regard Nina’s perceptions as fantasy and her reality as unreliable. It saddens me that several posts seem to disregard the clear abuse shown in the movie as somehow “made up” or “not enough to explain why she is insane” I think even one comment stated: “I was waiting for her explain her past incest so the viewer could understand why things were happening.” An incestuous mother, a sexually abusive teacher, a masturbating man on a train – all of these experiences do happen in real life and would put any of us in disarray.

    When I left the theater, I heard so many patrons say “that movie was disturbing.” Yet, there are so many more violent movies that are disturbing. How many times have men shown their rage against women’s bodies and its considered blockbuster success! We are so quick to label “insanity” when a woman actually has her own rage (even at her own body), her own ridiculous ambition, and her own desire.

  30. This is a story. Characters don’t have to be like real people. They’re allowed to be one-dimensional if the author wants them to be. And they were like that for a reason.

  31. The stage of life is what comes to mind here. So often we apply the film to life when in reality it is the life that is applied to the film.

    Given here is an opportunity to see what some…not all experience as a struggle between the darker side of life and what we as society have deemed as reality. To give in or ‘let go’ this is the underlying, recurring theme. Screaming out to those who would listen, listen and stop injecting ego into a vastly more complex interaction. What one would see as a woman portraying unfortunate ‘nuances to young women.’
    Another would see that more then we would like to admit struggle with this dark vs. light drama… A person willing to put themselves out there and speak the truth of the matter is highly, at least in my book more respectable then the average puppet who would consider themselves wiser due to the fact that they would rather build a fence to solve the problem of suicidal jumpers then admit it is the parent that creates the child.

  32. I am astonished by all those women who appreciate this macho piece. In Nina’s world every men is a sexual predator and every woman is either a) a whore or b) repressed. It is completely wrong (in this day and age) to portrait sexuality as something necessarily promiscuous: it seems like it is not an option for Nina to develop her sexuality with care and love from someone, it doesn’t matter if man or woman. She looks like two porn stereotypes, first naive girl, then femme fatale – both one dimensional. Portman does what she can, but the character is like a sheet of paper: one side is as plain as the other. The blur between récit and unreliable narration is not an excuse for the kind of redemption for which Nina strives: the simple conversion from one stereotype of femininity to another. Aronofsky surely has his issues with women, as we can see in his other movies.
    Additionally, the film is cheesy in my opinion. It is totally kitsch to make the character who is playing the black swan actually start to metamorphose figuratively/visually into it. It is obvious that such an idea is cliched and artistically vulgar.

  33. IT Seems like you all missed the plot with this movie. Portmans Dancing!! Sitting for the duration of the movie breathless. If you didn’t think that The Black Swan was a great movie. Then frankly your ability to judge movies cant be taken serious.

  34. I just saw this film but yesterday and couldn’t agree more, it’s a bad message for and about girls.

    I’ve known the ballet world a bit, I’ve known international ballerinas that are surprisingly healthy and stable and this film has absolutely nothing to do with the ballet world, but it have everything to do with self-mutilation.

    A very real disease. At 47, I had so many friends in high school and at univ that suffered from eating disorders, specifically young women from mid to upper mid class lives that simply felt a loss of control, it was much less about perfection that control.

    And Princess Diana had that self-cutting, self-mutilation issue in full force, as do apparently many women…

    I really felt quite sick after this film, yes it was exciting, but so full of so many awful cliche’s, so not about ART and PASSION like Powell’s The Red Shoes…

    Great review, many thanks…

  35. Just saw this movie and found it very interesting to read the controversy in the posts. Personally, I was deeply moved by this movie.

    First- the surrealism in this film is breathtaking. This, to me, is indisputable.

    Second- I didn’t find the “sex” scenes- the masterbation, old man in subway, nor girl on girl sex scene- to be gratuitous at all. I think that those who have made such comments have preconceived feminist agendas. I believe it is not a publicity stunt or macho or anything like that, but an exploration of sexuality in our society, as well as how deeply connected our sexual selves are to our public selves; as reflected by Nina’s repressed sexual and personal self. The girl/girl sex scene I read as a window into another facet of Nina’s true self: the dark swan. The sinful. The free. Where as the white swan is desperate for the approval of a man, the black swan can let herself explore her imagination with this woman who both frees her and scares her (as the relationship of many women and their sexuality).

    Third: to those who have made statements about Nina’s frigidness as being cheesy, or cliche, or the bulimia being a stereotype of dancers…. I would argue that the bulimia in this film is not meant to be reflective of dancers but of people with mental health issues. While I would agree that someone with such serious problems, both physically and mentally, is highly unlikely to be chosen for such a prestigious role, I don’t think that aspect is distracting enough to not see this story played out.

    Fourth: Addressing comments of this movie being a bad influence on young girls of beauty etc etc… To me this was not so much a movie glorifying dancers or slenderness, and if someone is to read it that way it’s truly a shame. When I saw this movie, I felt scared and sorry for her; not that she should in any way be envied. Isn’t her death at the end proof enough of that??

    I could go on but I’d rather take the time to go watch this movie again….

  36. I don’t know how literally we’re supposed to take the incestuous overtones. While Nina and her mom do seem to have a smothering and unnaturally close relationship, I don’t think they literally have sex.

    I also thought it interesting that Thomas is basically just like Nina’s father. (There is a scene where Barabara Hershey reminds Nina that she was a young dancer who fell in love with her director and got pregnant and gave up her career to give birth to Nina.) Not that Thomas is literally her father. He’s just a father figure.

    Also interesting was that when the Tom and Jerry in the bar ask Lily and Nina if they are sisters, Lily tells them, “We’re blood sisters”. I thought that was an interesting choice of words.

    And what does all this quasi-incest mean?

    I don’t know.

    It probably just means that the screenwriter read a few books on Freud or Jung and threw it all into the mix.

    About the whole role model conroversy, anytime you have a self-destructive character like Nina or the Macbeths, or Othello or Willie Loman, they are not meant to be positive role models.
    However that doesn’t mean that there are no lessons to be learned from them. They’re negative role models. You don’t want to bring about your own ruin, you don’t do what they do.
    There are lessons to be learned in failure as well as in success. Mainly you learn what not to do from failure.

  37. I think the bottom line is the movie was the same old spin on women and power… women can attempt to have power but it she will be destroyed because of it. After her trials and obstacles Nina triumphed with her majestic performance but she had to mutilate herself to get there. At the end with the glory and power that the performance gave her she had to destroy herself. Hollywood has alot to answer for in reinforcing these messages that women cannot not hold power without being destroyed.

  38. There’s plenty of tales of men grabbing for power and being destroyed at least as far back as King Arthur and his son Mordred killing each other in their fight for the crown, to Shakespeare’s MacBeth and Richard the 3rd, down to Michael Corleone at the end of the Godfather II, alone in his bunker at the end, having defeated all his enemies but also a hollow shell of a man who has destroyed his own family, or Tony Montana in “Scarface” dying in a hail of machine gun fire, or more recently the ring wraiths and Gollum and a few other characters who succumb to the corrupting allure of the ring of power in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Or the crazy old recluse that Daniel Day Lewis becomes at the end of “There Will Be Blood” after he’s amassed his fortune and is finally able to isolate himself away from everybody.

    “Uneasy is the head that wears the crown” and “It’s lonely at the top” are recurrent themes in tales of men seeking power as well.

    I think writers have always been wary of the powerful and the power-hungry regardless of gender. Nowadays, to writers, the powerful are a bunch of studio heads who reject their script ideas, or demand re-write after re-write and then try to screw them out of their DVD sales royalties. Writers don’t like the powerful.

    And I disagree that Nina wants power. I think she wants perfection. Which is a very tough goal to set for oneself.

    Nina also wants stardom and adoration. But as the general said when he described a Roman triumph at the end of the movie, “Patton”,

    “A slave stood behind the conqueror, holding a golden crown, and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.”

    Likewise adoration is very ephemeral. And if you get addicted to it, you are probably headed for disappointment.

    For me Nina’s triumph is no different than Willie Loman’s in “Death of a Salesman”. Willie “won”. He paid off the mortgage to the family home. He got his dream. But it cost him his life.

    Willie bought into the American dream just as Nina bought into the prima ballerina dream. And neither dream is worth giving up your life for.

  39. Black Swan struck me most of all as a feminist film!

    I am shocked at all the negative reviews here. Yes at first glance it appears women are being exploited and sexualized, but for goodness sake this is a work of art, look closer! What happens to Nina in the movie? She goes crazy! That’s right, crazy, and it is not painted as a positve thing.

    Yes, at the end Nina claims to have found perfection. But look at the music/movie industry today! Many of the celebrities we see as ‘perfect’ go through similar experiences as Nina involving exploitation and insanity. In our world it is often through sexualization and surrender that people achieve fame. I think Aronofsky is being critical of that fact and highlighting the problems with the lust for perfection and glory.

    Aronofsky’s filmography is filled with tragic films all with the intention of making the audience experience catharsis (think Requiem). Black Swan I believe is no different and in fact is a feminist criticism of our society.

    I truly felt for Nina! The way we women look at each other, always comparing beauty, as a means to get ahead is tragic. Our society has created this. Lily was an interesting ‘Madonna’ like character in the way she was able to embrace her sexuality and yet still be confident and powerful. This is something Nina never really figured out in the film and thus she suffered the consequences of her own delusional method for acheiving perfection. Lily was a free spirit well Nina was a pawn of orders, she acheived beauty and grace in the eyes of her audience, but at a price. This is the sad state of the world, Black Swan did a masterful job of capturing these feminist issues in an unbiased way.

    I could go on, but I just wanted to show that this film can be seen as very feminist in deed!

  40. I thoroughly enjoyed your analysis of the film, which was especially helpful in my attempts to make sense of the story. It bothers me that after such a thorough, well-written analysis, someone thought to correct you on the use of the word “disinterested.” I can’t help but think that some people spend hours reading others’ work, looking for a chance to chime in with condescension based on their own perceptions of grammatical fortitude. The fact is that, as I see it, you did not misuse the word at all. At least not entirely. True, one of the men at the bar was completely uninterested, but one man did ask Nina questions about the show. If one inquires about something, then he can’t possibly be uninterested. It could be said that he is disinterested–asking just to make conversation, although he really doesn’t care about the show one way or the other. Uninterested means not interested or having no desire to know about something. Disinterested means impartial. If the man were indeed uninterested, he would not have broached the subject of the ballet with Nina. So you were correct in saying disinterested, depending on how you choose to look at it. I apologize for the rant, but I felt compelled to defend you when someone chose to undermine your entire work based on confusion about a single word. It is maddening that someone would comment on something so trivial when the word choice has no real effect on the message of your composition. I will be bookmarking your blog and reading your further posts.

  41. Am I the only person questioning whether the
    Lily/Thomas sex scene was real? Or was is just
    another hallucination?

  42. so I loved this movie and was completely disturbed by it at the same time, which can happen with movies. The ending really seemed like a cop-out. All of the other blood was hallucinatory, so why would the blood at the end be “real,” seen by other characters? Was it another hallucination? Or did she die?

    I started wondering how a female director/writer would have ended the movie (of course, ignoring what a female director would have done with the rest of the story!). Would Nina have woken out of that last bloody hallucination, then been able to stand and take in the applause for her brilliant performance? That’s what I like to think.

    The black swan was a symbol of the girl coming into her power as an adult woman, an acknowledgment of her sexuality, of her womanhood. The story was about that struggle, about her encountering other people’s ideas of her sexuality, rejecting them (“little princess”) and her finding her own definition, finding her power. So that’s why the ending seemed lame. After such an epic battle, to be victorious, then die in such a stupid way? very disappointing.

    So loved it and was disturbed by it. But that’s why I go to movies: not for a clear message, not for “good messages for girls” (honestly, who would take a kid to see this movie?), but to be entertained, intrigued, disturbed, interested. Art is thought-provoking. Hurray!

  43. WOW – I just came across this – and this review is amazing!!! I had a ton of the same views you did. And I was looking on the net to see if anyone else thought the same things – So I stumbled across your blog and your review. I am so glad I did. Thank you

  44. Movie was unsettling I agree. Was this screenplay a book before being made into a film? More often than not, I find reading the book fills in the gaps left by the screenplay. Great Blog! I am glad I found it when searching for more detail on this movie. Ballet was beautiful.

  45. Two things that you said are wrong. The first one is the morning after nina is “with” lily, the pole that is used to prop the door closed is moved. Second, when nina starts touching herself while in her bedroom. That is her mother sleeping in the chair. Other than that great review for a great movie.

  46. Thanks to everyone here for helping me make some sense out of this haunting movie.

    I think it might have made a little more sense to me if Nina woke up at the end in a hospital bed in a mental institution, or something. It’s sort of cop-out to do that, though.

    Aronofsky doesn’t make easy movies; they’re not about heros or role models. I think he knows what he’s doing and I wouldn’t underestimate his intentions with this movie. Although, as with a lot of art, the viewers sometimes see the meaning more clearly than the artist himself. People see what they personally identify with in art.

    I recognized a lot of narcissism in Nina, which not accidentally is something I’m dealing with in my life. The scene where she realizes she was holding the bloody nail file after the disturbing visit with Beth– does she see the damage that she is responsible for? The masturbation scene– she is so self-absorbed that she doesn’t realize her mother is asleep in the chair next to her? Then the scene where she imagines the sexual encounter with Lily and later the imagined fight– she’s projecting her own image onto this other woman but really doing these things to herself. For whatever reason she can’t deal directly with herself and her own self-love, self-lust and self-hate? (Well, that is difficult for all of us.)

    I’m not sure if that even makes sense, but I’ve enjoyed reading all the insightful comments here.

  47. I believe that Thomas’ character was modeled after George Balanchine, the NYC ballet director who often used sexuality to control his dancers. During the time period when he was the most active (pre-1970s) women really had no recourse when it came to sexual harassment, so I can see how he could get away with it. Interestingly enough, also had a habit of marrying and divorcing his dancers.

    I was a ballerina at one point. Unfortunately, eating disorders are not uncommon in ballet, due to the enormous pressure to be thin. At the time, I was 5’1″ and 120 lbs but told I was too fat–by female instructors. The competitiveness and jealousy between the dancers portrayed in the movie was also present. But in the movie, I don’t see Nina’s bulimia as coming from pressure to be thin; rather, it is her response to pressure from her mother, her instructor, and most of all, her own unrealistic expectations of perfection. Of course, she is far from the only woman to strain herself in pursuit of an unrealistic vision of perfection.

    I really enjoyed the movie. I agree with the reviewer who said Nina is a negative role model. Her downfall comes not only from her mental illness, but her excessive pursuit of perfection. I noticed her obsession with checking her posture in the full-length mirror at her home. Nina clearly had some issues before the movie began, as evidenced by the self-harm and bulimia.

    I don’t worry about this being a negative movie for girls. It’s rated R, and any sane parent will take that seriously. Moreover, I can see girls NOT wanting to be like Nina.

  48. I’m not sure if the above commentors pointed this out or not, but this article takes the movie from a VERY literal point of view. Watching this movie several times, and once you know that Nina is slowly loosing her grip on sanity, it becomes completely beleivable that her Mother and Lily do not even exsist, not like we see them.

    Her mother is only there when she views herself doing something wrong in her mind (like masterbating, going out to drink, and eating cake). Her mother acts as her superego and feelings overbearing because she is so hard on herself.

    Lily in person we only see once when she calls her a bitch and the one that says “She was suppose to be sick!”, every other time the Lily we see is her wild and dark side that she longs to be.

    She fights with herself and during the climax of the movie with the mirror and the dancing, she finally made peace with all her sides. The perfect dancer, the little girl, and a sexual woman, which is why her mother is crying happily (Have you ever tried to look for a face in the audiance while preforming, its next to impossible. The lights are usually blinding) in her mind and Liliy is prasing her.

  49. It seems like this is a movie people either hate or love with not too much in between, though I did read a couple of ambivalent comments. Still, it provokes strong reactions and I think that is an important function of art, so in that sense the film succeeds.

    Personally, I found the film compelling and interesting. It doesn’t shock me that not everyone is comfortable with it. Reading the comments, it seemed to me that a lot of people were reading value judgments into the film that aren’t really there.

    I didn’t get the impression that Nina was bulimic out of any desire to be thin or perfect. Rather it seemed more a reaction to stress and anxiety.

    Great review, thanks.

  50. I’m 16 years old, a ballerina, and I loved this movie. I didn’t think it was a bad message to girls at all. Just because someone is having sex on screen doesn’t mean a girl my age is going to walk away and say “Wow. I think I’m gonna go have sex with my ballet instructor and/or a female rival of mine!”. I never would have guessed that such an amazingly directed movie would get so many negative things said about it. But that’s just my opinion on it!

  51. I am guessing that the reason she said it was perfect, I felt it was because she was so set on things being so perfect and everyone telling her to feel it…She finally snapped, lost her mind and actually “Played” the part. She killed herself in the end like the charactor in the play she was in. Everything in the swan story was like her life, she wanted to make the play her story, even the death at the end. Thomas was her “love’…more he was in interest becuase she craved his approval, and when she saw lily sexing him, she got upset, and so…in the end..she just does what her crazy ass mind says…BE THE PART..

  52. This is a many-layered movie. One of the layers that most movie-goers do not recognize, is the context of MDSA (mother-daughter sexual abuse).

    However, survivors of MDSA or other forms of child abuse, and professionals who work with them, often recognize Nina as a victim of her mother’s abuse. Her infantilization, disassociation, sexual repression, compulsive need to please, blurred boundaries of her identity, eating disorder, self-mutilation, her belief that she can only be loved through sex and sexual violence… these are all symptoms familiar to survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The movie also contains plenty of direct clues to MDSA (most of which can also be read as emotional/psychological abuse, but the sexual component of Nina’s pathology is pretty strong). The thing is, most movie-goers, and most people in our society in general, are not aware of MDSA and do not recognize the clues, so they miss this layer of the movie. Aronofsky doesn’t spell it out for viewers because most of them are not ready to be confronted by it, and the movie is not actually about MDSA… But it is part of the context.

    Some clues: the pink grapefruit scene at the very beginning, the mother’s domineering behaviour with the cake (then making Nina lick the cream off her finger), the jealousy of the mother when she realizes the coach “wanted Nina all to himself” (she says “I don’t blame him”). Why is there no bed in her mother’s room? When Nina gets into bed, her mother comes to the door in black lingerie and says “Are you ready for me?” Nina wants to wedge her door closed so her mother can’t come in, but she only does it at night. In the masturbation scene, she sees her sleeping mother. Either a hallucination, or actually there–its creepy either way. The way her mother forces her to undress, the way she touches Nina all the time. The way her mother calls her “sweet girl”, and then after going down on her, the Lily-hallucination calls her the same thing. Her guilty look when the director asks her if she’s a virgin. There’s plenty more.

    Nina is possibly schizophrenic and is losing her grip on reality, so she’s not a reliable narrator. She is split into two personalities, the white swan (naive, childlike, product of her mother’s abuse) and the black swan (repressed sexuality, liberation, everything her mother choked out of her development). All of the other female characters dress in black (Lily, her mother, Beth). As her metamorphosis proceeds, Nina goes from white to grey and finally black outfits. To embody the black swan she has to kill the part of herself that had repressed it. To escape from her mother’s dominance she has to end her own life. Its no accident that the last person she sees is her mother in the audience.

    Anyway, a lot of people who watch this movie pick up that the relationship with the mother is twisted, and it makes them uncomfortable but they aren’t sure why. But many MDSA survivors recognize themselves in Nina. The story is a tragedy, but its not as if Nina is just a bad role model for girls. She is trapped in an a life of abuse and her pathology is the direct result.

    1. Sorry, I know this is a super old thread. But I was waiting as I read through this whole thing for someone to write about MDSA, so I’m glad you did, “Anonymous”! The one thing I will disagree with you on, is that I would definitely say she is developing a dissociative disorder such as Dissociative Identity Disorder and not Schizophrenia. In her case, she has at least two parts or personalities (which are the White and Black Swans) which she perceives herself to literally become and does not know, for example, if she stabs the black swan (who she thinks momentarily, is Lily) when she becomes the black swan, it’s actually her that’s been stabbed. That would be a very real yet confusing type of thing to happen for a person with DID. (I have DID 🙂 ) Thanks.

  53. About ten years later and I’m commenting. Firstly, I enjoyed reading your review, and I appreciate your take. Secondly, all the comments have been interesting and at times enlightening.

    One comment in particular is why I am prompted to make my own comment. The anonymous person who brought up MDSA (Mother-Daughter Sexual Abuse)- WOW. Thank you for explaining this disturbing and tragic aspect. It is true that the majority of people are unaware of this, and would not for certain pinpoint that in this film. I didn’t until people online speculated about incest between Nina and her mother. The way you explained it makes it pretty convincing that at the very least there is a possibility of MDSA.

    Honestly, the bit you wrote of where after “Lily” (who is actually Nina masturbating herself) calls her “sweet girl” directly after giving her oral sex, which is what we hear only her mother call her, is what made it click for me. And it breaks my heart. Then I go on to think of how when that “Lily” turns in to Nina she suddenly pushes the pillow over her face in a sudden aggressive action. There’s dominance and perhaps violence there which fit with MDSA I think. The other part that stands out to me is that yes, Nina focuses on her mother’s face in the audience, who is crying and indeed looks proud. This reinforces the significance of their dynamic in Nina’s mental state and actions. It also didn’t make sense to me that her mother would actually be proud, as she was fighting to keep Nina from performing. So, I wonder if that was imagined by Nina.

    And the virgin question… I cannot figure that out, as I don’t see Nina having had sex before, or if she did it was inexperienced and only a handful of times. But I don’t think she’s had a romantic or sexual relationship. But if she’s a victim of MDSA it would make sense that she could answer “no.” Initially I thought she was flat-out lying and was a virgin.

    Anyway, thank you to the writer of this review and to all the commenters who shared their thoughts!

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