Black Swan (2010) explained: the price of perfection

A very brightly lit white swan sails across a pitch black background.

Black Swan reimagines classical ballet Swan Lake as a twisted tale of illusion, delusion and psychological trauma.

Nina (Natalie Portman) wants to be perfect almost as much as she craves the dual role of Odette / Odile in her ballet company’s production of Swan Lake.

Artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) warns her that perfection isn’t the same as being brilliant on stage. He means that technical flawlessness alone doesn’t make a performance captivating. It takes something indefinable from within – call it passion, the X-factor or allure.

Nina is perfect as the white swan (Odette) but lacks the wild spirit to play black swan Odile. So, Thomas challenges her to let go and reveal her untamed passion.

For polished Nina, this seems impossible. She’s immature, innocent and controlled by her mother (and everyone else). Or so we think. Nina transforms into the black swan – and it happens right under our noses.

But the drive to be perfect – in the sense of a creative breakthrough – is gruelling. It forces Nina to grow up rapidly, but plays jarring tricks on her mind.

The on- and off-stage stories in Black Swan reveal the sacrifice it takes to be the best, and the punishing demands of creative roles. We want actors, dancers, musicians and writers to transport us to alternative realities. But at what cost?

The story – and significance – of Swan Lake

Tchaikovsky’s ballet is about love, illusion and death.

Angry about being forced to marry, Prince Siegfried heads into the woods to hunt swans, where he discovers the beautiful Odette. Evil sorcerer Rothbart has cursed her live as a swan during the daylight hours.

Siegfried and Odette (in human form) fall in love. But when the scheming Rothbart passes his daughter Odile off as Odette, Siegfried mistakenly asks her to marry him. The traditional ending sees a heartbroken Odette choose to die rather than remain a swan.

From Swan Lake to Black Swan

Black Swan doesn’t retell the Swan Lake story so much as subvert its ideas.

In the ballet, Odile appears disguised as the innocent Odette. In Aronofsky’s movie, the transformation is reversed: Nina must persuade others she has what it takes to be the black swan.

Or, to take it a step further, it’s possible that Nina was always the black swan and, like Odile, is merely pretending to be an innocent, anxious woman. [This fits with the psychological reading of the film below.]

Similarly, while the ballet ends with Odette’s death, the movie ends with Nina literally and figuratively killing off the white swan / Odette.

There’s a lot of magic and illusion to Swan Lake; its characters can’t be sure what’s real and to be trusted.

Reality and fiction merge in mind-bending ways in Black Swan, too. Prince Siegfried can’t tell Odile from Odette … and neither can Nina. Compare the way she (and we) repeatedly confuse Lily and Nina with each other.

Becoming the black swan

Nina’s journey sees her shedding her innocence and embracing her true – darker – self.

But her growth isn’t just about Thomas’s creative vision. Nina must also overcome personal obstacles:

  • Maturing into an independent adult by (belatedly) separating from her mother
  • Becoming a sexual being rather than the embryonic character she is at the start of the film
  • Embracing her supposedly darker nature, i.e., in being wild and wilful (or, in other words, free will).

This leads to an interesting question: does Nina take the drugs?

There are a couple of ways of interpreting the evening at the club. Lily spikes Nina’s drink. Nina then has no control over the rest of the evening (or the lesbian fantasies that follow).

Secondly and more likely, Nina takes the pill when Lily offers it to her. However, her accelerating psychosis causes her to believe she’s been spiked. Why? Because it leaves her free to “live a little” and enjoy her fantasies … without the guilt of being a bad girl (i.e., the black swan).

Is Lily real?

Like Odette and Odile in Swan Lake, Lily and Nina strongly resemble each other.

To a large extent, they’re ‘doubles’: characters that complete each other, but are also mirror opposites. See also Fight Club, as well as Dostoevsky’s short story The Double – about a man who sees his doppelgänger everywhere.

However, it’s clear Lily is a real character in her own right because she interacts with other people. Thomas introduces her to the rest of the cast, for starters.

Yet much of Nina’s perception of Lily is pure imagination. At these times, Lily represents Nina’s repressed desires. That’s why we repeatedly see Lily’s face morphing into Nina’s.

Lily is the free spirit Nina has but is afraid to show. And she’s the sexually playful, independent woman Nina is slowly becoming.

Nina projects these desires onto Lily as a way of avoiding the guilt of growing up, separating from her mother, and becoming assertive in the world.

It’s also a way to kill off the white swan – the perfect little girl – that Nina must destroy in order to play the black swan.

But if Nina can’t be trusted about Lily, is she a reliable narrator of other things that happen in the movie?

How does Mrs Sayers abuse Nina?

There are signs Mrs Sayers (Barbara Hershey) may be sexually abusing Nina. It’s most apparent in the lack of boundaries between them: Erica dresses Nina, cuts her nails and barges into rooms with no care for privacy. She babies her to a disturbing extent (see also 1965 horror The Nanny).

More disturbing is Erica calling “Are you ready for me?” just as Nina jumps into bed. And when she feeds her cake, it’s more lover- than mother-like.

There’s an argument this comes from Erica’s own mental fragility. She lives vicariously through her daughter’s success, having been denied her own career. Compare also her obsessive, repetitive portraits of Nina.

Nina’s transition into Odile is one response to this. Becoming the black swan is a way of reimagining trauma, and pushing back. Her scratches, for example, become powerful wings rather than a symbol of harm / self-harm.

It’s equally possible, though, that Erica’s abuse is mental more than sexual. Her failing as a parent is in the way she cossets and stifles her adult child. She’s frighteningly manipulative with the celebration cake, for example.

The other thing to keep in mind is that some of what we see of Mrs Sayers is Nina’s invention. Erica is partly a projection in the same way that Lily is.

Casting Erica as a manipulative monster enables Nina to fight back: to step out of her unnatural childhood and become a mature, sexual being. This is an inescapable part of becoming Odile – the black swan.

Consider too that Mrs Sayers then appears in the audience at the premiere, smiling and supportive … as if the fight never happened at all.

Discovering she can lock her door, and discarding her childhood toys, is a symbol of Nina’s growing independence.

The black swan persona gives Nina the power to slam the door on her abusive / intrusive mother. Alternatively, it coincides with Nina’s developing maturity, in which she forces separation, sexual identity and the end of childhood (see also Run).

Mirrors, maturity and mental breakdown

Mirrors and reflections are everywhere in this film: in the studio, on the subway, and at home. Wherever Nina looks, someone – or something – is gazing back at her.

Notably, the film uses this to riff on the idea of doubles. After all, a lot of the time Nina is seeing herself without recognising it.

When her reflections seemingly take on a life of their own, it hints at Nina’s troubled mental state.

At the same time, it’s further evidence of Nina becoming the black swan: the personality that’s part of her yet foreign.

Nina discovers the black swan as much as she becomes her (or, you could argue the black swan breaks free despite Nina’s best attempts to bury her).

Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901 – 1981) talked of the mirror stage as a process through which infants gain subjectivity. This chimes with what’s happening to Nina as an adult who has yet to achieve her own personhood.

The terror of ageing

The flip-side of the drive for perfection and adulthood is its cruel brevity. This hits particularly hard on female creative careers that peter out and vanish from public view after middle age.

Black Swan shows the emotional trauma this puts on women, and the inevitable but unspoken competition between them. Consider:

  • Beth (Winona Ryder) brings Thomas’s work to life, but he replaces her with a younger model.
  • Beth is scared of / bitter about Nina. Nina is scared of Lily overtaking her. [All About Eve (1950) nails this dynamic very effectively.]
  • Nina’s mum still grieves for the career she had to give up to become a mother.
  • Thomas makes explicit that Nina has become his little princess at the end of the film – a sure sign that the clock is already ticking down on her career.

It’s also interesting that the film finds horror in the flawed female body: scratches, broken nails and peeling skin all become grotesque. There are similar transformations in The Fly.

Here, it’s a comment on the taboo of performance, particularly ballet, in which dancers appear perfect on stage while masking bloodied feet and physical trauma. And so does Nina.

Killing the white swan

Nina has a final showdown with her mother, declaring that nothing will stop her taking her place on stage: she IS the black swan.

This brings the film full circle. Much earlier, Thomas tells Nina she won’t get the part – then challenges her to fight for the part. Nina responds by biting him – i.e., she’s already becoming the black swan (or already is).

Incidentally, both this scene with Thomas and her showdown with Erica feature doors. i.e., barriers, openings, danger, privacy and protection. It’s a reminder that the scenes are linked, or reflections of each other.

Nina rushes to the performance but continues seeing distortions. After a bungled opening dance she returns to the dressing room to find Lily ready to take her place as black swan.

This is the final showdown, but one that takes place mentally. Nina is fighting the bit of her psyche that’s frightened to be the black swan / an independent woman.

Nina (or Odile) takes control and kills ‘Lily’ – with a shard of broken mirror, no less (see also The Devil’s Advocate). She then takes her place on stage, finally free to be the black swan.

When she returns to her dressing room there’s no sign of Lily. The reality of the psychodrama hits her. In fighting off this weaker version of herself, Nina has stabbed herself. She’s literally killed off the perfect white swan.

Like Odette, Nina can’t live the rest of her life as a weak white swan beholden to her frailties.

She dances the finale bleeding profusely before finally jumping to her death – in the ballet and, possibly, the film.

Obsessive to the end, Nina doesn’t fear for her life or what comes next. All she cares about is that she felt it: perfection.

Black Swan (2010), directed by Darren Aronofsky

What to watch next
  • Requiem for a Dream, Mother! (Aronofsky, dream-like, allegories)
  • Run (mothers, growing up)
  • Gattaca (perfection, mirroring)
  • Fatal Attraction (classical stories retold through cinema)
  • Candyman (mirrors and mirroring)
  • Earthlings (fairytales, abuse)

Picture credit: Fabio Jock