The world of ballet is highly competitive and is known to subject dancers to intense pressures in order to become perfect for their roles. Dancers are exposed to many internal and external forces that can prove to produce an extremely stressful environment: there is a demand to keep a slim yet toned figure, constant competition from other dancers in one’s company, as well as the endeavor for perfection in their on-stage performances. Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky, is a film that follows Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a skilled ballerina who lands the much-coveted role of the Swan Queen. While preparing for the role, it is evident that she is the perfect embodiment of the White Swan: innocent, fragile, and pure. However, the main challenge of the movie is that Nina struggles to play the Black Swan, a character who is dark, enticing, and seductive. The movie follows her transition into learning how to become the Black Swan and can also be seen as a metaphor for both the physical and psychological challenges that one must endure in order to achieve artistic perfection. While Black Swan is a compelling psychological thriller that explores the sacrifices that must be made in order to achieve artistic excellence, it is also a film that skillfully portrays Natalie Portman’s character experiencing many symptoms that can be diagnosed into several psychological disorders including obsessive-compulsive disorder, anorexia nervosa, and paranoid schizophrenia.
Throughout the film, Nina suffers from a variety of symptoms which could warrant a diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Many times during the movie, Nina expresses her obsession to be perfect. During rehearsal, Thomas explains, “In the four years every time you dance I see you obsessed getting each and every move perfectly right” (Black Swan, 2010). Nina explains her exceptional discipline by saying “I just want to be perfect. (Black Swan, 2010). Nina’s obsession with perfection is reinforced in that although she is an exemplary dancer, she focuses so intensely on the technical aspects of her art that she can no longer ‘feel’ it. Even as she is dying at the end of the film, she makes it a point to tell Thomas “I felt it. Perfect. I was perfect.” (Black Swan, 2010).
It is also important to consider that Nina’s scratching and other self-harming behaviors are likely compulsions to reduce her anxiety. She is seen to scratch her back after stressful events such as after dance rehearsals and after beratement from others in her company. In fact, this compulsion is so severe that Nina’s mother was forced to put socks on her hands to prevent her from scratching herself during her sleep. Defined by unreasonable thoughts and repetitive behaviors, OCD relates psychological distress to anxiety. Nina’s scratching behaviors reflects the emotional tension as well as the anxiety that results from her slow descent into insanity as the demands of the role greatly weigh down on her.
Furthermore, Nina also exhibits symptoms indicative of anorexia nervosa. While being a professional ballet dancer puts her at an increased risk of developing anorexia, there a number of scenes where Nina is seen to be inducing herself to vomit in the bathroom. While it remains ambiguous as to whether she is vomiting because of external stresses or to keep her weight light, the movie implies that after vomiting Nina is relieved from her anxiety. Her extremely thin figure as well her preoccupation with perfectionism also point to her being anorexic. Nina’s morbid fear of weight gain is best seen through her dramatic refusal to eat a mere slice of cake after landing the role of the Swan Queen as well as when she apprehensively stares at a small grapefruit. Nina’s competitive occupation as well as the strain she faces from both her mother and director shows how her environment is a prominent factor that led her to develop such symptoms.
In addition to OCD and anorexia, Nina experiences a great number of vivid and visceral hallucinations and delusions which hint towards her being a paranoid schizophrenic. Nina’s delusions that Lily (Mila Kunis) is out to get her and steal the lead role is made overt when Thomas makes Lily the alternate for Swan Queen. Nina begins to see Lily’s face on herself and others. Her psychotic episodes often involve sexual themes which parallel the character of the Black Swan. These include dramatic hallucinations where Nina has sex with Lily even though Lily claimed to have left the party with another man and Lily having sex with Thomas while Nina is at dance rehearsal. Lastly, in the third act of the film, Nina experiences another psychotic episode on the show’s opening night where she finds Lily in her dressing room. Nina ultimately stabs Lily, killing her. In a turn of events, it is later revealed that Lily was just another hallucination and in reality, Nina stabbed herself. Although research shows many causes for the development of schizophrenia, Nina’s stressful life circumstances including obtaining and preparing for the role of the Swan Queen, an overbearing and manipulative mother who is suffocating her, and abuse from home and at work leaves her vulnerable to these symptoms.
While it is not explicitly shown in the movie when Nina developed these symptoms, it is safe to assume that her OCD as well as her anorexia symptoms started when she was a child largely in part to her mother’s efforts to make her a famous ballerina after she had to give up on her career in order to raise Nina. Moreover, Nina’s psychotic episodes and schizophrenic symptoms seem to have begun after she started preparing for the role of the Swan Queen. As a result of these disorders, Nina is left alienated from the other dancers. She is distrusting of everyone around her, including those who are also in her dance company, focusing solely on dance and her pursuit of perfection. As aforementioned, Nina’s psychotic episodes make her especially wary of Lily and her possible ulterior motives.
While personally I don’t like to get involved in other people’s businesses, I feel that if it were in my place, I would tell Nina that it is good to immerse herself in the character of the Black Swan, but not at the expense of possibly harming herself and jeopardizing her future. In addition, she should try to finally distance herself form her oppressive mother because she is holding her back on a developmental level. Society would probably respond to Nina much like the other members in her dance company already does: keeping their distance and avoiding any close relationships. To be perfectly honest, I cannot see myself working or living with individuals so preoccupied with perfection that it is ultimately dangerous and prevents them from forming any meaningful relationships. While it is important to do the best you can in all that you set out to do, it is not worth sacrificing meaningful bonds and purposeful communication with others.
Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a film with very strong visual and auditory elements that allowed the viewer to understand the experiences that Nina is going through. While the symptoms may have been exaggerated, the film presents a vivid portrayal of obsessive-compulsive disorder, anorexia nervosa, and schizophrenia. Moreover, there was substantial character development that laid a solid foundation for these psychological symptoms.