January 27, 2011
The dark drama The Black Swan is built around the psychological illness of its protagonist, Nina Sayers, beautifully and disturbingly portrayed by Natalie Portman. Nina’s disordered relationship with her roommate mother Erica, played by Barbara Hershey, sets the stage for Nina’s psychological breakdown. Erica is narcissistic, spending all of her time painting pictures of herself and completely infringing on Nina’s space and well-being. One scene particularly captures this dysfunctional relationship – Erica offers Nina the first piece of a cake she bought to celebrate Nina getting the lead and Nina refuses it. Her mother than takes the entire cake and threatens to throw it in the garbage.
Nina fights to win the starring role in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, a character which requires expression of both the good White Swan, and the evil Black Swan. After winning the part, stress mounts on Nina. She has unwanted sexual advances from her artistic director, increasing conflict at home from her Mother as she tries to assert her autonomy, jealousy from other ballerinas in the production, and the pressure to become the Black Swan, a part with which has difficulty connecting. Throughout the movie Nina “discovers” scratches and bleeding on her body seemingly derived from self-injury. However, it is difficult to tell which injuries are real and which are not throughout the film. As the stress and anxiety increase, Nina begins having psychotic breaks. She suffers visual hallucinations related to bodily injury and metamorphosis of her own and other people’s figures. The line between reality and hallucination begins to blur as the movie progresses, culminating in a shocking ending relating to her embracing the Black Swan persona.
While the movie does an excellent job of portraying the terror related to psychosis, there is a large amount of artistic license taken. There are simply too many psychological issues going on with Nina. She shows elements of an anxiety disorder with obsessive compulsive behaviors. She also manifests self-injurious behavior and some signs of an eating disorder. She dabbles with substance abuse. She has psychotic breaks if not outright psychosis. A case could also be made for a personality disorder. It is highly unlikely all of these elements could coexist in one person, especially someone performing as a ballerina at such a high level. Despite this particular criticism, the movie does a fantastic job of portraying the struggle with severe psychological illness. The Black Swan is a deep and compelling story with outstanding acting and cinematography. The intertwining of this psychodrama with the story of Swan Lake can only be described as brilliant.