‘Do not believe what you see but think of the image as a box whose contents you must infer.’ (Laura U. Marks)
Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) spins the spectator through an odyssey to witness the creation of ultimate art with Nina’s fanciful mind being the driving force of her perversion of reality and the spectator’s uncertainty of what is truly happening, imagined or seen. In many ways similar to Satine from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001), Nina is a ticking décadent, deteriorating and exhilarating simultaneously, trying to establish a balanced relation between her Apollonian and Dionysian instincts in order to complete every single burdening expectation she is faced with. Confronted with contrasting figures like the inspirational Lily, the competitive Veronica, the threatening Beth and her own paralysing mother, Nina agonises her way through every obstacle. Another motoric character leading to her ‘perfection’ and downfall is Thomas and her morbid desire to please him unconditionally. Aronofsky hints at flashing truths, leaves the spectator in the ambiguous dark, in Nina’s desperate point of views, in her accumulating phantasmagoria. Every tattoo, mirror, noise, mirror-image, furniture, musical note, costume and piece of architecture is thought-through, everything is based on the Black Swan/White Swan concept, which poses the question whether the vision the spectator sees is filtered through Nina’s misconceptions and obsession with her dual role or a distorted but nevertheless true reality for Nina the way she experiences, imagines or senses it during her development. To decipher the truth out of the story-telling images that Aronofsky lays bare one must penetrate Nina’s mind and be able to step out of it and be very attentive to what is really going on and what is seen as imagined or imagined as seen, without losing oneself.
Laura Mulvey discusses Freudian theories by stating that ‘woman’s desire is subjected to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound, she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it’, which is very well illustrated in Black Swan (Mulvey, 1999: 834). Nina subjects herself to self-destruction in order to awaken self-creation. Whether she really peels off dead skin around her fingernails or not remains unclear, but she first and foremost imagines and thereby sees her hand inflicting pain, the resulting wounds and the annihilation of the proof thereof. What is certain, however, are the scratching wounds on her back that are also terrifyingly observed by her overprotective mother. So, Nina inflicts her proper wounds, first of all by choosing to be a ballerina (which in itself includes massive physical pain), secondly by mutilating her skin and thirdly by succumbing to the disastrous concept of overambitious perfection. This overt self-destruction implies her power and meaning, she is the fundamental creator of her wounds, she is then the ‘bearer of the bleeding wound’, but the wounds are in her distorted mind, extroverted and illustrated for the spectator, as usual, she needs the wound to enable transformation, transcendence as can be seen in the ultimate breakdown scene in her room the night before the premiere. Her desire to perfect herself, or rather her created self through dancing, is linked to pain, it is only realisable through a hurtful process where she takes the lead. Nina needs to ‘castrate’ or rather halve her initial identity which is only about control and thoughtfulness, to make space for contrast, for her ‘other’, for her passionate half in order to complete herself through an act of mental ‘amputation’, allowing a controversial re-attachment which is predominantly inspired by Lily. In Nina’s case, she can only reach perfection through the castration of her initial self and the replacement with her recreated new self, transcendence is thereby possible, but merely for one culminating point, namely the ‘perfectly’ performed spectacle and incarnation of the black and white swan, after that, Peter Bradshaw writes, the ‘artistic breakthrough fuses with nervous breakdown’ and ends in her death (Bradshaw, 2011).
Mulvey goes on by examining that the mother ‘turns her child into the signifier of her own desire to possess a penis (the condition, she imagines, of entry into the symbolic)’, which again can be applied to Nina’s relationship with her mother Erica (Mulvey, 1999: 834). Erica’s life and paintings all revolve around Nina and her career as a dancer, she either pushes Nina excessively to excel or she tries to suffocate her thereby provoked over-ambition. In her eyes, her daughter is still ‘a sweet girl’ (Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky, 2010) and with this denomination she proves the constant belittlement of her adolescent daughter to keep her non-threatening for her own illusions. She is a smothering oppressor and a desperate obstacle when it comes to Nina’s creative awakening, but the Swan Queen finally starts to repel her mother’s influence and restrictions with a ripe outrage and furious revolt. Nina must succeed for her, to fulfil Erica’s failed dream, her dream died because of the sacrifice that she gave birth to Nina, this is Nina’s heritage, she must continue what her mother started, but she must obey her rules, the claustrophobic apartment being a playground of psychological torture, fears of abandonment and emotional captivity. Erica craves what now belongs to Nina, she lives it out through her, paints her over and over again, focusing on her, painting her like she wants her to be, like she still sees her, as a child, a prima ballerina, not a deteriorating suffering dancer and daughter dying for her art, her mother, the audience, her competition, her ego and Thomas. The ‘penis’ is turned into another metaphor here, it is the meaning of life, art, identity, a specific purpose to achieve with one’s existence and talent and Erica is obviously and ambivalently envious of her daughter’s success, but of course, Thomas plays an influential role in both of their lives. The way Erica talks about him suggests a certain background knowledge of him, even if it predominantly consists of past time gossip, but she speaks about him as if he was in charge of both their fates, as if he is the only powerful and higher force to determine their progression into celebrated stardom. Even though she does not morally approve of him and the rumours surrounding his persona, she stills holds him up high and considers him powerful and essentially influential as if their lives depended on his goodwill. It is an emotional idealisation of him and an intellectual jealousy of his position. By talking about Thomas, Erica feels even more involved in Nina’s life, as the presence of a male in the conversational topics seems to fill a gap in their deserted dark matriarchal household. Through Nina and Thomas, Erica’s own existence seems to make at least some sense and give her a certain purpose and she certainly will be a symbol in the irrevocable metamorphosis of her daughter.
When it comes to Nina’s standpoint with Thomas something different occurs. As there is no father present, she subconsciously projects an idealised paternal figure onto Thomas and what makes this even trickier is the fact that she is sexually attracted to him as a mentor which demonstrates a father complex. She constantly tries to impress and please him, if she does not succeed, she is crushed, she seeks his unshared attention all the time, her mood depends entirely on his judgement as does her sexual arousal when he almost forces it out of her. Thomas’s patriarchal dominance and arrogant vanity are displayed by minimising his ephemeral favourites ‘my little princess’ (Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky). What both of them have in common is their impenetrable will to embody and live out their art, even if they have to go over dead bodies, including their own, and both are extremely lonely characters. Mulvey explains that ‘woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place of bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning’ (Mulvey, 1999: 834). Applied to the inner life of the movie, Nina’s success is Thomas’ success, everything she does and accomplishes reflects upon him. Thomas nourishes a specific fantasy of the Black Swan, how she looks like, how she moves and dances, and obsessively demands this precise product of his mind. It is Nina’s burden, luck or challenge to adapt her entire essence to this ‘role model’, and forms, deforms and reforms herself constantly to incorporate it. With harsh provocations, intriguing power games, manoeuvring seduction and the recurrent use of ‘blackening’ and instrumental dogmas Thomas achieves the realisation of the projected Swan Queen through his ‘little princess’.
The most inspirational, influential and damaging rival is Lily. Veronica is vain, deceitful and embodies merely a small competition and threat for Nina, but Lily is another matter. She has in excess what Nina lacks, sexuality, charisma, confidence and feral eroticism. She feels the need to extract these traits from Lily’s nature in order to use them to form her own version of the Black Swan. She dislikes her and expresses enviousness of her, especially when she sees her dance and when Thomas offers her a lot more (sexual and professional) attention and compliments than he offers Nina, but at the same time she is fascinated by her, intrigued and obsessively observes her. Mulvey states that ‘although the instinct is modified by other factors, in particular the constitution of the ego, it continues to exist as the erotic base for pleasure in looking at another person as object’, which can be put in the context of Black Swan (Mulvey, 1999: 835). Lily is the guideline-catalyst for Nina’s partly re-invention and loss of herself. Nina’s instincts define her ego, Lily’s instincts determine Nina’s alter ego (It) and both intertwined awaken the personalised ‘superego’ in Freudian terms. Lily is apprehended as a fantasy by Nina, a fantasy of the Black Swan that she must embody and perform, not Lily, she must dehumanise her, as she will humanise her in flesh and blood on stage, she repeats the same scheme as with Thomas. Although she merely sees crucial fragments of Lily that she must ‘copy’, she never really stops to acknowledge her as a potential, driven and tireless threat. She will suck everything out of her to use her for her imagination, but when this creative process is finished, the product completed, when Lily is no longer needed, Nina must get rid of the rivalling body, the threat, the entire embodiment of competition, but what does her half consist of and of whom? She needs to see Lily as an object she can exploit, she does not belittle her like Thomas does, but she examines which benefits she can take out of her, suppressing Lily’s immense potential as the Black Swan. In Nina’s mind both of them get more and more intertwined, they mould into each other, addicted to each other, possessively holding on to each other and then the stronger ‘twin’ conquers the other.
To accentuate this melting together of Nina and Lily, Aronofsky uses light, shadow and darkness, white, grey, green and black, and most importantly mirrors. The scene where they are alone for the first time in the bathroom, there is a shot where one sees only Nina standing in front of the mirror, in reality, but both of them reflected in the mirror-image, as they both really stand in front of the mirror. Another example is when ‘both of them’ return from the nightclub, enter Nina’s apartment, confronting the mother, Nina is seen through the mirror-image and Lily pops out of her and retires into darkness, which is revealed afterwards to be a drugged or drunk delusion, but nevertheless operating and present, Aronofsky demonstrates what is reigning Nina’s mind-set. The cumulating point of this creative illusion is the key dream sequence in which Lily successfully performs oral sex on Nina, but in fact she is masturbating, exploiting Lily and herself in her fantasy to sense sexual pleasure. Lily’s tattooed two-headed plant transforms itself into a pair of black moving wings, her face ends up to become Nina’s. Nina must feel what it is like to feel like Lily, like the Black Swan. This morphism already starts in the nightclub whilst they are dancing with two men, the light correlates, red and green, passion and poison, the mask is born, the wings start to grow. Nina and Lily magnetise each other until they collide.
As Mulvey examines that ‘the mirror phase occurs at a time when the child’s physical ambitions outstrip his motor capacity, with the result that his recognition of himself is joyous in that he imagines his mirror image to be more complete, more perfect than he experiences his own body’, one can deconstruct the whole Black Swan mirror symbolism and its never-ending claustrophobic ‘relation’ with the protagonists (Mulvey, 1999: 836). The mirror seems to be the immediate medium to visually access one’s appearance and one’s truthful reflection. Nina seeks her identity in her mirror-image. She is haunted by mirrors, they have eyes, they show darkness, they distort her perception of reality, they stimulate her delusions, they reveal to her what she could be, what she already is, what she will never be, she faces mirrors within mirrors as she looks at her selves within selves dissolving into the echoed sinister corners, they show transformation and movement. Her mirror-image exhales, laughs, whispers, mocks her, teases her, moans and rattles wherever she goes.
In the bathroom-scene after the announcement that Nina will play the Swan Queen, Veronica (probably) wrote the word ‘whore’ with red lipstick on the mirror. Nina immediately tries to wipe it out, to dissolve it, hide its trace, blurring the surface, disrupting the visible access to her mirror-image as if her own blood on the dance-floor was spilled, the mask of the Black Swan, the eyes of her artful demon. This bleeding and surface imagery is repeated when Nina lies under water in her bathtub, staring up, staring into herself, into her ‘other’, leaning over her like a succubus, there is a constant wrestle going on between her egos and their self-destruction is symbolised through their loss of blood, of life. She needs to imagine that she destroys Lily as she sees her Black Swan in Lily, it must melt with herself, not with Lily, the Black Swan is the creation she sucked out of Lily, they must be separated, therefore she must ‘kill’ her, get her out of the way, throwing her against a mirror, which will then break and pierces Lily’s flesh with a shard, a piece of the identity puzzle.
Now Nina is finally dominant and Lily dormant, she is entire, she is in possession of her Black Swan, the mirror will not terrorise her anymore as she is the draconic mirror-image of herself now, in shards, internally, penetrated, bloody, self-destructed at the highest point possible, liberated, the Swan Queen in flesh and blood demonstrating two dark shadows with overwhelming wings on the wall behind her on stage as if she would be standing in front of a double-edged mirror, the audience later applauding her breath-taking triumph, unaware that they applaud her self-inflicted loss, ecstatic death and human sacrifice.
As Nina is still treated like a child, especially when it comes to her fragile and submissive behaviour, her ‘mirror phase’ is happening as a prelude to the Black Swan. Her demonic mirror-image is far more capable to embody the fatal drives and carnal carelessness of the Black Swan, it craves to break free in order to be expressed not captured behind the surface, it scratches Nina’s identity to awaken her impulses, it hurts and chases her through the medium of the mirror, as a mirror means confrontation. Mulvey continues by saying that ‘recognition is thus overlaid with mis-recognition: the image recognised is conceived as the reflected body of the self, but its mis-recognition as superior projects this body outside itself as an ideal ego, the alienated subject’ (Mulvey, 1999: 836). The mirror-image is always ‘complete’ as one looks at a complete reflection of oneself, somehow an out of body experience, but one fails to see through the mirror-image to stare at oneself from the deep perspective, at reality. The dancers communicate through their mirror-images with each other in their dressing-rooms, just as Lily and Thomas are often seen through mirrors. The fact that Nina’s mirror-image tries to impose its completing piece of perfection on her explains why she feels the need to really or figuratively hurt herself, dynamically cut her nails (to actually not hurt herself), scratch herself, ‘break her legs’, crack her bones, lose even more weight, peel off her skin, bite and break her nails, sprain her foot and vomit. She adjusts herself and her body to her dark perfection, her easy-going doppelgänger. The moment when she first inflicts a truthful deadly wound she does not see it through a mirror, neither does the spectator, this is what really happens, an unaware suicide and a conscious murder, a choice to perform to the fullest, to dance her life-saving time away, to die at the highest point of life, the applause is unaware of its perversion. Again here lies a clear parallel to the ending of Moulin Rouge! in which Satine is dying to the sound of ignorant applause, death intruding after the highest accomplishment of art with life as a sacrifice to the forum.
Black Swan is born in Nina’s body and perception. Nina is the movie, the correlating pirouettes, the ballerina in the music box breaking down, the one on the pink cake almost ends up in the trash, every psycho-sexual dream sequence and lived-through fantasy have their right of existence and reason. Nina’s body operates in the film’s spotlight, it deviates, the skin alienates itself, the eyes redden, the body demonstrates itself and prevaricates. Nina orientates her new self just a little bit through Beth, the fallen and overly self-destructive and used muse. Where Lily is flirty and easy-going (despite the occasional drug abuse she gets by), Beth is not, she is extreme, heavily lost and ‘degenerated’. Beth is the warning sign as a depraved ex-lover and slight inspiration as a Dionysian dancer legend for Nina, she steals several objects, including a lipstick, from Beth in order to underline her transformation, but at the same time she must distance herself from the abyss that Beth find herself in. Nina is one extreme, Beth is the other, in reality Lily is the balanced version of both which Nina reaches in the ending, but then dies even prior to Beth which makes her more similar to Beth, as they are both highly self-destructive and delusional.
Despite the antagonising magnetism and distancing, Beth is Nina’s foreshadowing downfall, a glimpse into her future or her tragic ending, but this time it is for real, but not before the show, because of the show, the art is everything that counts, so she does not need any distractions, she needs Beth and Lily to represent what she projects onto them in order to function, in order to become someone and something for one moment in her life she is truly not and dies not as herself but as a perfect and legendary role. As Friedrich Nietzsche uttered: ‘If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you’.