Thursday, January 20, 2011

A dissection of Black Swan *Spoilers Within*

I've been ruminating on my interpretation of Black Swan, and I can no longer wait to share it with you. Spoilers be found here, so if ye hath not seen Black Swan, venture no further.

A lot of people have been panning the movie because they feel it's trite, saying that artistic perfection can only be found in death, the ultimate sacrifice.
I don't think that the movie was saying that artistic perfection can only come through death.
Nina killed herself because the only two futures she saw for herself was that of Winona's has-been ballerina or her mother's miserable never-was ballerina.
The character of Lily was a happy ballet dancer, Nina projected her own issues onto Lily. Lily was serving as the foil. Showing that someone can simply be a ballerina and not a total nutcase.
Nina was not simply a perfectionist. She was psychotic. She was self-mutilating from an early age, and her mother's response was to simply cut her nails shorter. She'd been stewing in her own private obsession for years, and was totally isolated thanks to her mother. Even with the role of her dreams, Nina could not allow herself to relax and be happy.
We were never, not once, supposed to look at Nina as an every woman. We are not supposed to identify with her. She is an anti-hero.

The masseuse in the beginning tells her that she's holding all of her tension in her diaphragm, it's no coincidence that she stabs herself in the diaphragm at the climax. The motion the masseuse makes with her hand into Nina's diaphragm directly foreshadows the stabbing that occurs later on. Whens he stabs herself, Nina is attempting to exorcise her own demons through blood sacrifice because she is not willing to sacrifice her career in the interest of her own health. She isn't trying to heal herself. Her journey of self-destruction is complete, and only that is what satisfies her. Nina had always viewed sacrifice as perfection, in her mother, in Winona Ryder's character- that is why she could never allow herself any small happiness or indulgence. Whether it be a piece of cake or an orgasm.

People have read misogyny into this film. I do not think the director hates women at all. I think he recognizes them as human. I think he was showing how damaging all of the pressure put on women to "do it all" can be. Nina represents our unrealistic expectations of ourselves- you cannot make yourself perfect, you can only die trying.
Perfection is not what we should aspire to, we should aspire to be healthy and happy. Sacrifice and pain is not the path to achievement.

I have also read criticisms that the characters are too stereotypical. But I think there's a reason for that. I think this film is a bit of an ink blot. Interpretations will vary, and I always love movies like that.
If it was meant to be allegorical, then broadly painted "type" characters are appropriate. We know stage mothers, predatory bosses, bad girls, etc. We don't need that much character development to recognize them immediately. And if the performances or characters are complex, it narrows the room for interpretation.
Was her mother really so overbearing, or was she a projection of Nina's self-destructive emotions?
Did the ballet director really regularly seduce his leads, or was Nina (so afraid of her own sexuality but clearly very attracted to him) simply painting him that way so that she could stay chaste?
We know Lily wasn't nearly as wicked and sexual as Nina was perceiving her, so this makes me give the other characters the same benefit of the doubt.
If those characters were more developed and complex, I wouldn't be able to wonder that. That's the beauty of the allegory.

My interpretation was that Nina's perception of reality was so perverse that none of the characters were operating under the motives we thought they were. It was simply Nina's paranoia and projection that was turning the world against her. I think this is most interesting in the case of Nina's mother. We, as a society, love to blame parents for the faults of their children, but that can be a mistake. Granted, her mother probably should have sought therapy for her daughter when Nina was scratching herself, but her mother could have been simply naive. Assuming the scratches were accidental isn't a stretch, it's realistic. It was also unclear to me if the portraits Nina's mother was painting were of Nina or of herself. I wonder if it was intentionally left ambiguous, or if it didn't matter. If Nina's mother truly was a stage-mother, then she simply would have seen Nina as an extension of herself, so a portrait of Nina is really a portrait of herself, and vice versa. Or, if they were all self-portraits, perhaps her mother was too consumed by her own failed dreams and depression to even notice that something was wrong with Nina. She may have just been going through the motions, supporting her daughter, and not really concerning herself with whether or not Nina would succeed. She did not react critically or negatively when Nina first called her to say that she had not won the role of Swan Queen. Nina's mother seemed supportive in those moments. This leads me to believe that she was not so much an overbearing stage-mother, but depressed and fragile, being supportive but also content to play the martyr because she felt it would benefit Nina. Could Nina have lived on her own? I'm not sure how much a lead dancer in a ballet company gets paid, but it seems that Nina was very happy being in the nest. When she becomes defiant, it's like the defiance of a teenager- she's happy to take what her mother offers, but resents the rules and discipline that go along with it.
Of course the scene with the cake speaks volumes. Her mother is clearly unbalanced in one way or another. I just really enjoy how complex her character is once you truly think about it.

If you have different interpretations, please share them in the comments! All ideas are welcome.