SPOILERS, SPOILERS, SPOILERS … spoilers, spoilers.
I just returned from seeing Black Swan at the cinema. As a piece of filmmaking, it is absolutely phenomenal. I have loved Darren Aronofsky since his debut, Pi. The only one of his films I have not seen is The Wrestler, mainly because that came out when I was living in China. I admit I don’t quite understand the story of The Fountain, but … ah, what storytelling!
Thus, he did not disappoint me with Black Swan, pushing us uncomfortably close to a mind maintaining but a tenuous hold on reality, gripping it with fingers slick with the sweat of obsession. But the question that my own mind is currently obsessing over is this: Is Black Swan ultimately a realization of or biting critique of Freudian psychology and Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth?
You can’t help but read the film in Freudian terms. I think I’ve seen the word “psychosexual” in nearly every review of it I’ve read. All the classic Freudian players are here: the overbearing, Superego of a mother, the fragile, repressed Ego hero, the free-spirited Id. The movie no less can be read in terms of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, with its Jungian concepts: the Bad Mother, the Hero, the Shadow, the Father. But the complexities that the film is able to twirl around with those concepts is what captivates me.
On the one hand, we have the Freudian reading: Nina, a sexually repressed ballerina lives at the mercy of her overbearing Superego, personified as her mother. Through her dancing and the prodding of her psychoanalyst/ballet director (who speaks in terms of “breakthroughs” and even sits her down on his couch before grilling her about her sexuality), she is able to unleash and ultimately harness her Id, breaking free of the confines of her oppressive Superego and achieving the height of perfection.
Joseph Campbell would describe it slightly differently, though in no less lofty terms: the Hero embarks on a journey of self-actualization by slipping out of her childhood prison (her Mother’s home/womb), aka The First Threshold, besting its Guardian (the Bad Mother), and entering the world of Adult Experience. There, she is confronted by her Shadow (her repressed sexuality) but with the guidance of her Father-figure/Mentor, she is able to overcome and assimilate her Shadow, becoming the Master of Two Worlds (her psyche and the stage) and reaching the height of perfection.
However, the critique of these readings comes in the actual events of the film, the things these overly metaphorical interpretations gloss over or try to nullify. The film’s horrifying plot introduces enough ambiguity that cracks begin to appear, if the above readings are not shattered altogether.
Take, for instance, Thomas Leroy, the ballet instructor. His obsession with Nina’s sexuality practically makes him a stand-in for Freud himself. Psychoanalysis would say he’s trying to help Nina express what has been repressed in her, but he’s doing that by literally sexually molesting her, both physically and psychologically. Furthermore, he has a reputation for this behavior. In what world could this possibly be acceptable? A world in which Freud is le roi.
The ending even complicates a black and white reading of Erica, Nina’s mother. Given a nuanced consideration, Erica can be seen as genuinely trying to keep her daughter alive, albeit in a severely imperfect way. Erica shows signs of mental disorder herself, but her actions are not only oppressive. She is also trying to protect her daughter, who exhibits signs of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (different from OCD), self-destructive mutilation, paranoid psychosis, and, ultimately, suicidal tendencies.
The ending, though, delivers the coup de grâce. Aronofsky achieves it by mixing the metaphorical with the literal when Nina finally battles her doppelgänger for psychic dominance. Campbell and Jung see this confrontation with what they call the Shadow as the ultimate test in human self-actualization and individuation. You must confront, overcome, and assimilate the Shadow, integrating it into your personality without it taking over, actualized in the movie by Nina’s fight with the phantom Lily/Nina/Black Swan in her dressing room, during which Nina confronts L/N/BS, stabs her to death (overcoming), and then delivers a bravura performance as the Black Swan in the ballet (assimilation). But the Shadow is part of your own psyche, so when you battle it (even figuratively) you are battling yourself. Thus, when Nina stabs her doppelgänger, she is literally stabbing herself.
This battle with her Shadow allows Nina to become the master of both her own psyche and the stage, a heroic triumph for Jung and Campbell. But it literally means death. This undercuts the entire Monomythic project and calls into question a society that would empower a perverted ballet director and hold as the ultimate perfection a suicidal (literally suicidal) obsession with achievement. Nina reaches her ultimate glory when she is at the height of her psychosis. Her catharsis, her breathy and elated realization of perfection as she bleeds to death, should give anyone pause the next time they hear Joseph Campbell’s maxim: “Follow your bliss.”
Ultimately, however, the question is am I seeing this in the film because Darren Aronofsky wants me to or because I want me to? I obviously have little love for Freud, Jung, or Campbell and quite a bit of love for Aronofsky. Thus, I recognize in myself a desire to see my own beliefs and values reflected in Aronofsky’s work. I don’t know. I’ll have to meditate on it. Because Black Swan does conform very well to Freudian and Jungian readings. But, honestly, their theories are so elastic, unscientific, and subjective that they consume and eradicate any utterance or text, which, of course, does not mean they are in any way “correct.” Ah, but that ending … it just seems so … perfect.
And a shout-out to the maestro of maestros, Clint Mansell, for another phenomenal soundtrack.