Meta-mythological stories tell ancient myths in a modern setting. As such, they can be very powerful and expressive in literature and film. They are able to transport deep truths about the human condition in a modern, accessible way. Black Swan, written by Mark Heyman and directed by Darren Aronofsky, adopts the Swan Lake myth to tell the story of the ambitious ballet dancer Nina, played in a stunning performance by Natalie Portman.
Nina wakes up from a dream in which she danced the Swan Lake scene where Rothbart, the evil sorcerer, transforms her into a swan. At work at the ballet, she finds out that the company is in fact going to play the Swan Lake, and that the artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) intends to have the prima ballerina dance both main roles: the white swan Odette and the black swan Odile. In a private conversation Thomas tells Nina, being the disciplined perfectionist that she is, that she is ideal for the white swan, but does not dance passionately enough to play the black swan. He forcibly kisses her, but she bites him and escapes. Intrigued by Nina’s unexpected display of fierceness, he decides to give her the lead.
At the same time, the attractive and sassy dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) joins the company. Nina is fascinated and at the same time suspicious of her – not least after Thomas tells Nina how Lily possesses the qualities that Nina lacks to play the black swan. Thomas makes her realize that her inability to release herself deprives her of earning the fruits of her own work. And Nina’s admiration of Lily’s unconstrained and effortless manner makes her become aware of her self-imposed constraints.
With the rising tension in view of the approaching premiere, Nina begins to hallucinate. She becomes paranoid that Lily’s friendship advances are only an effort to sabotage her, while at the same trying to seduce Thomas and take the lead role from Nina.
At the premiere, Nina starts panicking when she sees Lily in her dressing room, preparing to play Odile. A fight ensues, in the course of which Nina stabs Lily and hides her corpse. On stage, she gives a thunderously acclaimed performance of Odile. After Lily congratulates Nina, she realizes that the fight never happened and that she had stabbed herself. Black Swan ends with frenetic applause, while Nina, now as the white swan Odette throwing herself off a cliff to commit suicide, lands on a mattress while bleeding from her wound, expressing in wonder that her performance was “perfect”.
As Black Swan is a Swan Lake story, Nina is, obviously, the protagonist equivalent to Odette. Instead of being held captive by the evil wizard Rothbart, who transformed Odette into a swan to make it impossible for another man to fall in love with her, Nina is the captive of a co-dependent relationship with her overbearing mother. But while Odette seeks prince Siegfried’s love, Nina’s struggle is not so much about the love of a man – although we see a certain tension between her and the ballet director Thomas. Nina’s great wish is to be recognized as a ballet dancer. And like Odette is afraid of losing Siegfried’s love to the seductive Odile, Nina sees Lily, who dances the black swan better than her, as a threat to this public recognition, because Thomas makes Lily Nina’s alternate.
Black Swan’s ending is where the story finds its meaning. The Swan Lake story, as Thomas tells it in the first rehearsal scene, follows one of the many variants of the libretto.
A virgin girl, pure and sweet, [is] trapped in the body of the swan. She desires freedom, but only true love can break the spell. Her wish is nearly granted in the form of a prince. But before he can declare his love, her lustful twin, the black swan, tricks and seduces him. Devastated, the white swan leaps off a cliff, killing herself. And in death she finds freedom.”
Thomas’ version of the Swan Lake story sets the frame for the movie. That’s why we expect Nina to somehow attempt suicide in the end. But this ending is neither the original nor the only version of Swan Lake.
The archetype of the Evil Magician
In the original libretto from 1877, Odette is chased by her evil stepmother, who appears in the shape of an owl and sends a knight called Rothbart with his daughter after her. While the figure of the stepmother disappeared in the later versions, Black Swan makes clever use of the maternal element. While Rothbart, in the classical 1895 libretto of Swan Lake, is the tyrannical and manipulative husband, Black Swan picks up the tyrannical and manipulative element and transforms it into the overbearing, intrusive mother. Both storylines share the common ground of Odette/Nina breaking free of a co-dependent relationship.
Nina’s mother manifests her oedipal trait in different ways. In her first scene, we see her treating Nina like a child by dressing her and making a fuss because Nina has been scratching her back in her sleep. This invasive behaviour becomes unbearably stronger when the scratches reappear and her mother starts to cut Nina’s fingernails. Cutting the fingernails is a highly symbolic act, as the fingernails are, biologically speaking, our claws, which in this context hint at our animal nature. That’s why they need to be trimmed in the civilized world. But when her mother does it – while any 20 year old should be perfectly able to trim her own nails – it becomes the symbolic gesture of a mother disarming her daughter, invading her privacy, and suppressing her nature.
This becomes even more palpable when one morning, after Thomas told her to touch herself, Nina begins to enjoy herself until she suddenly discovers her mother sleeping on a chair in her bedroom. The intrusion in her privacy in this scene goes deeper, as it affects the realm of sleep, of dreams, of the subconscious and of sexual desire – in one word, of the Freudian Id, which is at the core of our human nature.
Hence, speaking in Freudian terms, Nina is the prisoner of her tyrannical Super-Ego, which is traditionally manifested through an overbearing parent. She’s the “Nice Gal” who neglects her own needs to avoid her parents’ judgement. That’s why she doesn’t have a working intimate relationship and suppresses her own sexuality – which reflects back to her disciplined, but passionless dancing. She’s emotionally dependent of her mother’s approval and never made the jump out of the nest into maturity, to finally fly on her own wings. Meanwhile, her mother leeches on Nina’s emotional dependence and her exertion of power. This we can see clearly when Nina’s nocturnal escapade with Lily creates such a row, ending up with her mother calling her on the phone all night.
Her mother’s manipulative and intrusive behaviour reflects the archetypal aspect of the magician. On the other hand, her possessiveness as “the mother who devours her own children”, as Jordan Peterson explains, mirrors Rothbart’s possessive affection for Odette from the Swan Lake libretto.
Resurrection through the Death of the Ego
Black Swan’s ending is also very different than the 1895 libretto. In fact, the ending narrated by Thomas, in which the story ends with Odette’s suicide after losing Siegfried’s love to Odile, is the one of the original libretto from 1877. In the classical version from 1895, after Odette kills herself, prince Siegfried kills himself with his own sword. The owl drops dead and the lake disappears, while Siegfried and Odette are reunited in a kingdom under water.
But the fact remains that in either stories Odette commits suicide. That’s why in Black Swan we expect Nina to do it aswell. And since there is no real Prince Siegfried in Black Swan, there is no one who could redeem her through his own sacrifice. Actually, the idea in Black Swan is another one.
As we already stated, instead of Siegfried’s love, Nina’s wish is the public approval – partially manifested through the ballet director Thomas Leroy. His name Leroy means “le roi”, which is French for “the king”. This seems to be a decent allusion to Prince Siegfried, who is to become king by choosing his wife – which, after all, is what the story of Swan Lake is about. His first name Thomas, just like the apostle in the New Testament, is usually attributed to a doubtful person. And in fact, we see the ballet director in doubt whether Nina is able to dance the black swan properly. While in Swan Lake Siegfried is deceived and seduced by Odile, in Black Swan Thomas is torn between Nina and Lily for the main part – and we’ve already stated that Lily is Odile’s symbolic representation.
Hence, Nina is fighting for Thomas’ and the audience’s approval. In the dressing room scene, where she becomes afraid that Lily might take her role as Odile, she fights Lily’s image (which alternatively flashes into her own dark image), smashes her into a mirror and stabs her with a shard of that mirror. The symbolism of killing the visualization of her dark side becomes even more mind blowing when we are aware that she does so with a piece of a mirror. And that is actually the reason she ends up realizing that she stabbed herself.
But she just committed an act of violence. That’s not the way of a “Nice Gal”. And for Nina, there was no way out of this situation by being a “Nice Gal”. She had to resort to her dark side to kill her potential usurper – thereby factually killing her light side.
And that is why Nina “dies” in the last scene of Black Swan. It’s not her physical death, but a symbolical death – the death of her old Ego, the death of the Persona she had shown to the world, to hide her own flaws, her own suffering and her own imperfections, for the sake of being appreciated. This Persona dies with her last words “I was perfect”. The part of Nina that needed to be “perfect” dies. Now she does not need to be perfect anymore (which she wasn’t anyway, since she failed a jump in the first act). She’s just passionately being herself. And passion, let’s not forget, in its original meaning is suffering. Instead of suppressing her individuality to please everyone, now, by taking the pain of accepting her true, imperfect self, she has finally become able to ravish the world with her real gift.
A ritual into maturity
Nina’s integration of her Shadow becomes a ritual of maturity. The blood of her self-inflicted wound is symbolically close to a girl’s first blood with the beginning of menstruation, which is also an event of initiation for every girl into womanhood. Only that Nina’s blood could be described as the blood of vulnerability, as she had been protecting herself from hurt by her “Nice Gal” and “perfect” behaviour to avoid being misjudged. She kills her old Ego, painfully burning off the deadwood, to finally be resurrected as a more mature, a more conscious and more authentic version of herself.