This review is going to be a little different. It’s an altered version of a university thesis, and was the catalyst for the beginning of this very film philosophy blog. It focuses solely on Black Swan from a Jungian perspective, and so features philosophical ideas of the Self and the concept of ‘inner demons’ that Jung theorised so harrowingly about.
‘How can anyone see straight when he does not even see himself and the darkness he unconsciously carries with him into all his dealings?’ (Jung)
Jung’s ‘shadow’ is a psychological concept dealing with the different facets in an individual’s personality. Jung said, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is…if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness”. Using Jung’s definition of the shadow and the effects of its repression, I’d like to demonstrate his theory of the unconscious self and its destructive powers through Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman, Closer, Thor) the lead protagonist.
Black Swan narrates the destructive spiral Sayers – a ballet dancer from the New York City Ballet Company – suffers as a result of her strive for perfection under the instruction and guidance of theatre director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell, Irréversible, Ocean’s Twelve), who encourages a duality in Nina that is essential for his adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
This quest for perfection begins with Nina’s interest in the starring role of Odette, a character Nina naturally relates and resounds with. Introvert and meek, Leroy tells Nina, “If I was only casting the white swan she’d be yours” however, he requires a dancer that can transcend Odette and become Odile, Odette’s dark alternate. As Nina’s quest for perfection progresses she loses her sanity, her identity, and her sense of self.
Leroy acts as a catalyst for Nina to explore the darker aspects of her personality – her ‘shadow’ – identified as the personification of certain aspects of the unconscious personality…the shadow is the dark, unlived, and repressed side of the ego.
This repression of her ego and her ‘conscious self’ is what fuels Nina’s descent into madness, emphasised only by her loneliness. One of the best things about Black Swan is the simple fact that you can’t figure out what’s real and what’s not. Plunged into Nina’s dark world, you’ll see and feel Nina’s psychotic and destructive delusions (if that’s what they are).
One aspect of Nina’s condition is a brief hint towards her suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Although speculated and unexplored by Aronofsky, Nina’s mother Erica notices a rash on Nina’s shoulder caused by what she feels is feverous itching, as Nina used to do when she was a child. The re-emerging of childhood rashes is a consequence, Erica suspects, of increasing pressure of Nina’s role in Swan Lake. Although Nina and the audience fail to recognise the true cause of the rash on her back, her delusions lead her to believe that she is literally transforming into the Black Swan – Odile (an Old German name translating to ‘He who is prosperous in battle’ – alluding to the triumph of her shadow).
Jung’s concept of the shadow states that the ignorance of the ‘darker’ side of a human’s personality leads to its dominance over and destruction of, the self. As Nina begins to follow Leroy’s instructions to discover herself – sexually and psychologically – Nina simultaneously experiences apparitions of a seductive, darker, sexualised version of herself, interpreted as the manifestation of Odile. In one scene, Nina bites Leroy’s lip as he forces himself on her and instructs her to become darker, proving that Nina (with direction) possesses the potential to become the Odile he requires. However, as these traits seem so alien to Nina/Odette, her shadow seems another person entirely.
This doppelganger of sorts encounters Nina in key scenes of the film, usually when Nina is exploring herself sexually or becomes rebellious against an overbearing Erica.
The shadow and isolation
Nina, as a professional dancer, channels her emotions through her love of dance – an obsession which ultimately takes her life and consumes her personality. Nina is chided by her mentor Leroy as he denounces her ability to move passionately:
“All these years, I’ve seen you obsess getting each and every move perfectly right but I’ve never seen you lose yourself. All this discipline for what? Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go.”
As I have briefly mentioned Nina’s mother Erica, it would be worthwhile to note that Erica was herself a dancer at the same dance company as her daughter but renounced her career to raise Nina. Throughout the film, Erica serves as an antagonist of sorts, as the viewer learns more of her need to control Nina and it is this need that ultimately drives Nina to rebellion and fuels her delusions. Nina’s flash of rebellion manifests as Leroy encourages her to explore her sexuality and while doing so, in a delusional state, sees her mother watching her as she explores herself.
As earlier noted, the role of Odile is dark as she is beautiful and the viewer understands as the film progresses that it is this shadow Nina challenges. Perhaps through fear or reluctance to entertain aspects of her darker identity (and delusions), it seems Nina recognizes Jung’s concerns. Whilst the shadow is vital for understanding oneself, our insecurities and desires, the shadow and the conscious self cannot co-exist in harmony unless a balance can be found. Jung said that a union of consciousness and shadow is simply inconceivable except as a violent collision in which the two sides cancel each other out, meaning their “mutual annihilation.” This is exactly what happens to Nina; in fact, Jung believed that the integration of the shadow must result in the death of the ego, the Self. His concern with the annihilation of the personality accurately foretells the fates of a lost and delusional Nina – particularly as the boundaries between ‘right and wrong’ are blurred.
The Allegory of ‘Good and Evil’ in Jungian terms
In the context of ‘madness’, Black Swan displays the archetypal metaphor of light against dark. Throughout the movie, Aronofsky maintained the visual battle of ‘good against evil’ – Nina against her shadow and Odette against Odile with constant images of black and white. To paraphrase Marie-Louise von Franz from her book ‘Shadow and Evil in Fairytales’, in traditional mythology, black stands for nocturnal, the underworldly, the earthly, belonging to what can’t be consciously known. White, on the other hand, stands for daylight, clarity, and order, but can be either negative or positive, depending on the situation.
In the struggle between ‘good and evil’, our characters of study act as perpetual ‘measuring sticks’ with other characters which further highlights the isolation and individual neglect Nina feels. Leroy commands: “Everything [Nina’s predecessor, Beth] does comes from within, some dark impulse. I guess that’s what makes her so thrilling to watch – so dangerous. Even perfect at times but also so damn destructive.” Jung noted the danger of encouraging the shadow, warning of its ability to “burst forth suddenly in a moment of unawareness” another allusion to Nina’s end.
“The only person standing in your way is you. It’s time to let her go. Lose yourself.”
These are Leroy’s words to Nina, on the verge of a breakdown with a combination of her delusions, her lack of identity, an overbearing mother and the encouragement of her mentor. After her breakdown and confrontation with her mother, Nina exerts physical traits of a black swan with black feathers and red eyes.
As a result of her inability to detach herself from her poisonous shadow, it consumed her entirely and spawned the loss of her unembodied Self. Aronofsky’s blatant animalisation of Nina is one of the most memorable finales of modern cinema:
Her complete transformation into Odile, the black swan allows her to become the passionate, sultry and lustful woman she repressed for the duration of her life. The audience catches a fleeting glimpse of the new Nina – confident, self-aware and dangerous.
Is Black Swan a Jungian warning about self-consumption?
When Nina offers her final words – “I was perfect” – she recognizes the death of her own Self and in her quest for perfection was consumed by over-identification with her shadow/Odile. Nina is metaphorically detained by her mother but freed by Lily (Mila Kunis as the somewhat comic relief and obligatory sex object) but, unfortunately, by the time Nina is reached by her family or friends, her shadow has already taken her.
Jung believed that this point is breached when the shadow has spoilt and even poisoned your human relations and personal happiness, so far as turning into an “evil destructive tumour”. Another great thing about Black Swan is its willingness to depict a dark and attractive young woman as dangerously troubled. It is one of many films that endorses madness as a desirable, almost sexy form of rebellion rather than seeing it as communication of the powerless.
- A deeply moving and overall troubling depiction of a young woman and her struggle with potential mental illness (see also Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene)
- Despite the obviously dark nature of Black Swan, Aronofsky manages to make it a fun and sometimes even funny ride (kudos to Kunis for making it that much lighter)
- The inability to tell what is “real” and “not real” is also hella fun to analyse later. Also, impossible to figure out. But you come to realise that it is ultimately irrelevant. You come to understand that it’s the suffering that matters and the conditions Nina suffers that are the real nightmare.
- As I’ve said above, the movie trope and paradigm of ‘dark, sexy, troubled heroine’ is again given little realistic thought because, well, Portman is just too much of a sexy focus (side note, let us not forget that sex scene between the two, which was light entertainment and a crowd puller, at best, but it is a questionable addition)
Nietzsche infamously theorised:
“Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”
Black Swan is not only a masterpiece for its fatalistic and existential subject matter and depiction of a slow descent into madness. It’s also a gorgeous exploration into the dangers of inexpression, of living a life half-lived. There is a fine line between being indulgent and hedonistic, yes, but Black Swan delves into the potential of indulging in either these two extremes: fear and apathy against over excessiveness and recklessness. Both are equally deadly, though Nina seems to have favoured the philosophy of living a short life, “perfectly”. Whatever that means.