I don’t know what I was expecting when I settled in to watch Black Swan, except I knew there would be ballet, and I had heard there was a lesbian scene. The intensity of the visuals surprised me, and the turn to the surreal took it from simple psychological thriller to twisted fairy-tale. And it wasn’t as if I didn’t know that Swan Lake ends in a suicide; there’s quite a lot of that in ballet, opera, and in the early-modern tragedies I study while wearing my other scholar hat.
But I was oh-so-horrified at the end of the film. Nina, our prima ballerina, whose psychosexual journey is at the heart of this powerful film, is arguably imbalanced and/or disturbed. She sees herself stroll past herself in an alley, has a scratching compulsion so severe that her mother trims her fingernails painfully short and binds her hands in socks when she sleeps (more on this later), and is obsessed with dancing “perfectly.” All these cracks in the girl’s psyche, which are brought to visual life by the film’s surreal lapses in the narrative, viewers can somehow forgive as Nina struggles to find balance between the innocence and purity of the White Swan and the aggressive seduction of the Black Swan, signified by her role in Swan Lake as the Swan Queen. When she leaves her house to go “out” (to the total amazement of her mother), her foray into the surrounding New York City nightlife with fellow ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis) is encouraging— yes, I know she does drugs in this scene, and that drug use is generally “bad.” But I was happy that in this scene Nina was, in some small way, controlling her own destiny for once; recognizing that she needs a bit of “help” to escape her repressive and controlling mother/professional life/ballet director. Though the drugs could be said to promote a few more slips between Nina’s reality and her fantasy world—where she has a satisfying sexual encounter with Lily, but where she also begins to spout black swan feathers from her back—I would argue that portions of those fantasies allow Nina to explore her budding sexuality. My husband argued that Natalie Portman was “too old” to play this part convincingly, but in my mind her age only emphasizes that she has been absent from the progression of normal personal and emotional development for a significant amount of time.
It also doesn’t help that Nina’s mother (Barbara Hershey) is the ultimate helicopter parent and, it seems, Nina’s only friend until she begins her tenuous relationship with Lily. The same viewer that championed her drug use in the last paragraph (me) also cheered Nina as she literally bars her mother from her life (read: bedroom) so she can have enough privacy to even fantasize effectively. The mother/daughter relationship in this film reminded me, oddly, of Brian DePalma’s Carrie (1976). As Carrie struggles with her transition into womanhood, her mother fills her head with the ideas of a religious fanatic. Nina’s mother not only lives vicariously through her daughter’s success in the ballet (she never had a starring role), but heaps a guilt complex onto her as well, implying that Nina’s birth was the reason she never became a successful dancer. It’s a relationship that does nothing but stifle Nina, and compound her problem with coming to terms with any type of sexual desire.
So I didn’t care so much that Nina apparently kills Lily on the night of the ballet’s debut, because I was thrilled that when she dances the Black Swan, she comes completely out of the repressive shell she’s been trapped in for the whole movie. As she moves, those symbolic feathers sprout, and she is freed from her own cloistered existence. These scenes are the climax of the film, employing dizzying 360 shots, dazzling lighting effects, close-ups on Nina’s face, and stunning CG. When she leaves the stage exhilarated, a good few moments are devoted to Nina’s ecstatic face and heavy breathing—it is an emotional orgasm. Finally, Nina has arrived. So imagine my horror when she realizes/discovers that it is herself and not Lily she has stabbed in the dressing room (significantly with a piece of mirror), so that when she returns to the stage to dance the finale of Swan Lake, she is really dancing to her own death. That to be “perfect,” for Swan Lake to be perfect, she has to die.
Just for the record, there is a part of me that loves the catharsis/parallelism/tragedy of this ending. I get it. Really. But I am classifying this film as horror for a few reasons: the disturbing imagery, the dark implications of Nina’s downward spiral, her obsession, her crazy mom, and the fact that the poor girl can’t have a sexual awakening without dying. Or, more accurately, because she actually HAS that moment of fulfillment and is able to embrace her sexual nature for even an instant, the film punishes her. What happens to Lily, the ballerina who comes to embody seduction for Nina? Well. She isn’t “perfect.” She can’t embody the White Swan in the ways that Nina can, leaving viewers with another character with half a sexuality. Nina is the heroine, and because she for one instant touches what it would be like to have BOTH innocence and seduction bottled up in her lithe little body, she must be eliminated. You could argue that it’s the classical tragic from I’m railing against, and I would argue back that this form has repressed and oppressed female characters for hundreds of years. I thought *maybe* we could move beyond that. Or, we could give it an Academy Award.