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.



Nena Nadine said...

I went and saw Black Swan on Monday. So amazing. The fact we can discuss each detail for hours makes it a masterpiece. I've only read on other review so I haven't herd much of the Hollywood interpretation. I know theirs will be wrong until after the Oscars. The Academy hates Darren Aronofsky. They also hate the Coen brothers and David Fincher. All three up for best picture. My guess is they will give it to Fincher. Being that it's the most pop culture friendly he has ever made. Husband thinks it'll be another Crash year. Uhg. I hate the Oscars.
I'm rambling. Back to Black Swan. About all the sex scenes. Husband and I got in a debate about how many times she had sex with herself. The one that is debatable is her sex scene with Lily. Was she by herself fantasizing or did she bring Tom or Jerry home. It's things like this that really make me want to re-watch it. How far was she from the beginning of the film.

On the mother. She had her own crazy issues. I think she knew Nina did too. I think she secretly didn't want Nina to have a leading role. She knew Nina wasn't strong enough mentally for it. The mother is such a subtle character with strong importance. The cake scene does question her own mental state. But how she treated her daughter cruel as we saw threw Nina, or was it a mother protecting her daughter from something Nina was keeping secrete from us and herself.

Noel said...

I think she was by herself and not with Lily, nor Tom, nor Jerry. I interpreted it as her finally (throught he aid of drugs) being able to let herself go by pretending she was someone else. Nina clearly had a thing for emulating the people around her. She emulated her mother's style. She stole things from Beth (Winona) so she could try to be like her. Nina is so dissatisfied with herself that she pretends to be other people.
I think the Black Swan symbolized her blind ambition, her unhealthy obsession, the hatred she had for herself for being weak and scared- And I agree that her mother may have been trying to protect her from that part of herself, especially at the end, but it was too little too late.

eve said...

Finally this movie made it to my little town hall theater, I had been waiting to read this blog post! Noel , I find it interesting that you describe the film as "a bit of an ink blot." Did you find inspiration for that metaphor from the inkblot on the wall of Thomas's apartment. I found myself staring at that inkblot in that scene, trying to see what image it created and thinking about what it might represent.

At first I interpreted the mother as being conniving and vindictive. She seemed to push Nina, but at the same time was so content with her being a backup dancer swan again, eager almost. I did not see her keeping nina from performing as her protecting Nina from self destruction, but as a way to hold her in time in a constant state of being "on the verge of success", because that way she would never have to let her go. Anyway, you are so right about the inkblot-ness of the film, I am seeing it in many ways now. This movie is kind of taking me a little too long to shake off, I think I might need to go watch "the jerk" or something so I stop feeling creepy.

Noel said...

Eve- I didn't even remember the ink blot in Thomas' apartment! That's a really great point!
And I think you're right about her mother. I think Nina's mother was tryng to protect her, and I think she secretly knew that her daughter couldn't handle the starring role, and that's why she was urging her to rest- not because she was trying to control her.
I also wonder about the "little girl" state of Nina's room- how much did Nina enjoy being able to act like mommy's little girl, and how much of it was her mother trying to keep her little?
It's so hard to tell just how toxic the relationship was!

I also couldn't shake this movie for quite some time. It really makes me think about our unique perception of reality- how much of what I think about other people, and myself, is true, and how much of it is just my own projection?

Anonymous said...

RE: I also wonder about the "little girl" state of Nina's room- how much did Nina enjoy being able to act like mommy's little girl, and how much of it was her mother trying to keep her little?
It's interesting that she liked that the ballet director called Winona "little princess"...
I think she struggled with the comforts of her pink room with its teddy bears and music box. She couldn't quite break free from being her mother's baby girl because if she did she would have to address her fear of sexuality and lose part of her control. For her mother...she would have no purpose in life if Nina left since she lost her career when she became pregnant.
My question....
what was that pine needle looking thing she pulled out of her shoulder? Why did her skin have tiny little circles or exaggerated goosebumps during the sex scene and at various times including the end where she danced the black swan? Is that representing her fantasy state?
Shall we assume all these parts were mere psychotic delusion:
She didn't stab Lily before she went out as Black Swan but then she stabbed herself as she prepared to go back onstage as white swan?
Winona stabbing her cheeks with file?
Lights go out... sex scene between Lily and the male dancer? did that really happen?
What does the peeling of her skin back represent?
Her broken leg scene in the mirror?
Yes, this movie is hard to shake! So much so that I had to find a place to discuss or read more about the film which lead me to your site.

Noel said...

Anonymous- Yes, it seems the most disturbing thing about this film is that it forces us to question our own perception of reality.
I believe the thing she pulled out of her skin was supposed to be a feather. I think that, as much as she wanted to play the part of the black swan, she didn't want to believe that she had her own dark side. I do think she wanted to keep herself pure and innocent, as her desire to control herself was all-consuming.
Someone the other day said something to me that blew my mind-
It is entirely possible that Nina's mother did not exist!
She never speaks to her in the presence of anyone else. The only time we think another character sees her is when "Lily" is at her apartment, but it turns out that Lily was not there.
Perhaps Nina's mother was not there- Nina could be a female Norman Bates!

Nena Nadine said...

This is such a great thread of comments to read! Along with getting True Grit on Blue ray, We also got Black Swan. So I'll be back here soon as well. And now I'll have to consider the existence of Nina's mother.