“I just want to be perfect.”
Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) just landed her dream role as The Swan Queen in Swan Lake. A dedicated dancer, Nina is pressured by her instructor, Thomas (Vincent Cassel) to embody both the purity of the white swan and the sensuality of the black swan. As new dancer to the company, Lily (Mila Kunis) catches Thomas’ eye, Nina struggles to embrace the black swan inside of her.
Nina’s Perfect Problem
Nina is obsessive about her dancing. Tightly-wound, her behavior could be explained both by a brain problem and a problem with her mother. It doesn’t help that her teacher assigns masturbatory homework and that she works in an extremely competitive environment. Poor Nina has so much stress that she never has time to relax.
Oh hey, remember Larry Talbot? He thought he was turning into a wolf! Nina thinks she is turning into a swan!
That sounds almost like a shockingly beautiful love story.
All kidding aside, Nina suffers from a complex disorder known as schizophrenia. There are many types of schizophrenia. Nina is paranoid; this means that she believes others are out to harm her.
Hallucinations – These are subtle, but they build as Black Swan unfolds. Nina experiences both auditory (heard) and visual (seen) hallucinations throughout the film. These are considered distortions in how the brain interprets information and are not usually present in other mental illnesses. If someone is definitely hallucinating on the reg, they might be a schizophrenic (or trip a lot, ask them about acid).
Nina sees faces that look like hers, only to realize that they are someone else. She hears laughter and people talking about her (common in paranoid schizophrenia; their auditory hallucinations play into the narrative that people are out to get them). She also thinks she is turning into a swan. Enter, Larry Talbot, stage left, who takes Nina into his arms and…
Sigh. Never mind. Where were we?
Delusions – These are beliefs that cannot be proven. Many mental health conditions predispose someone to delusions. Paranoid schizophrenia makes a person more susceptible to beliefs that involve intended harm. Nina sobs when she tells Thomas, “She wants my part!” Of course, Thomas quickly explains that everyone wants Nina’s part due to the very nature of ballet. Between the drug in Nina’s drink, however, and Nina’s attraction to Lily, she imposes a belief that Lily might do anything to sabotage Nina’s role.
YUP, you read that right. Nina’s mom…is a little weird. She helps her grown daughter undress, she wears skimpy underwear around her, makes her lick frosting off her finger, and oh yeah, she comes into her bedroom unannounced. To dismiss all this as the mere clinginess of a weirdo mom is to dismiss that there is obvious sexual abuse happening here.
In fact, there are clues to this throughout Nina’s life. Nina’s mom doesn’t encourage Nina having friends, she gets jealous when she is not invited out to events that involve Nina, and Nina’s room is the frozen room of a child. It’s like Nina was never allowed to age; even Nina’s voice is childlike.
Can we also mention the crazy paintings of Nina? That’s ALL her mom paints?! That’s downright fucked up, you guys.
When you combine Nina’s health diagnosis with her disgusting mother and the intense pressure of the lead role in Swan Lake, the story goes like this:
Some circumstances are known to be real because they are validated by other people. Nina does get the leading role. Her teacher does try to seduce her. Lily does take Nina out to dinner. That’s when things derail. Although drug naysayers would blame Molly for this, Nina showed signs of a frayed psyche before Lily ever laced her drink with fun stuff (don’t do drugs).
Lily and Nina do not spend the night together; Lily denies it. She’s not the type to deny something like this, being so open about her own sexuality. Instead, it reveals that Nina is attracted to Lily and either is embarrassed because she remembered the night incorrectly or is embarrassed by her own sexuality, or a little of both. It could also be that Nina was made to feel that sexuality is a bad thing.
Enter, Nina’s mom. The matron of Nina’s world has been sexually abusing her for a long time; stunting Nina’s growth in childhood, Nina’s mom is possessive and toxic. She does not want her daughter to succeed.
The only thing that frees Nina from her mom is dancing.
Thus, when Nina has trouble with the black swan, it consumes her. She suffocates under the weight of embracing her sexuality because for Nina, sex is very scary. She is confused because her first encounter with sex might have been via the inappropriate touch of her mother. Unable to distinguish her own normal sexuality from her mother’s perversion, Nina capsizes.
I believe that after Nina falls, the last 20 minutes of the film are a hallucination. Nina does not kill Lily, nor does Lily reappear to tell her that she did a good job. Nina could not suddenly nail her black swan when she was failing up to the minute to dance it. The ballet audience would not be kind enough to look past such a miserable defeat as falling at the beginning of the show.
No, Nina has already stabbed herself with a piece of the mirror and as she dies, she fills in the blanks of the story; she dances the black swan flawlessly. She kisses her teacher passionately. She flees the clutches of her mother.
This is the last hint that Nina is hallucinating; right before she falls to her death, she sees her mother in the audience, but it is not likely that after being smacked by Nina that her mother would be there at all. By dreaming the last moments of her life, Nina gets her perfect ending, and she finally escapes.