The Madness of Queen Swan: Black Swan’s depiction of mental illness a visceral, voyeuristic thrill

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By Becca Seel

Warning: Rife with spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Black Swan has risen from limited release, film festival obscurity to become one of the most polarizing, oft-discussed films of the year. Audiences are captivated by the downfall of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a ballerina performing the difficult role of Odette/Odile in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The dual role requires technical virtuosity, gracefulness, and, as the film frequently reminds us, the ability to seduce. Whether the ballerina is dancing the role of the virtuous Odette or the trickster Odile, there is a juxtaposition between white and black, virgin and seductress, a combination that drives Nina insane.

While the film portrays the devastating quest for artistic perfection, it also depicts the demise of a mind. In Black Swan, the two are simultaneous; Nina stabs herself, leading to her death, minutes before she goes onstage to deliver a tour-de-force performance as the Black Swan, a part she had struggled with while holding onto sanity. She frees herself from her mental prison by killing herself, a poetic act that mirrors her artistic emancipation. The film sensationalizes and romanticizes the descent into madness, yet there is some grain of reality that is perhaps as disturbing as the lurid hallucinations and shocking violence of the film.

The demands and pressure of the dual role torment Nina. The physical demands of ballet are torture enough. In the film, Nina requires physical therapy for her displaced diaphragm, and cleaves her toenail as she practices.

She also develops increasingly crippling anxiety and experiences intense paranoia, as she is convinced director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) is going to give away her part to rival ballerina Lily (Mila Kunis), her foil. She steals items from the dressing room of the washed-up prima ballerina (Winona Ryder), whom she has replaced. Not to mention her increasingly problematic mommy issues.

Nina begins to physically self-harm, all to maintain some semblance of control over her life. Mysterious scratches appear on her back; her mother implies that this is not the first time Nina has scratched herself compulsively, and she is put to bed with mittens taped over her hands. Nina also picks at her nails, imagining in a bathroom that she pulls off a strip of skin from her finger. She flinches in pain as she clips her toenails furiously to the quick. She vomits after stressful rehearsals.

Controlling her body, whether through constant rehearsal or self-harm, becomes an obsession, yet it is ultimately her mind that fails her. Nina’s neuroses grow to something she cannot handle, and thus her mind acts where she cannot in creating images and sounds- full on hallucinations and delusions- that she experiences to combat her failing grip on reality.

The film would not be nearly as shocking if we did not see from inside the mind of Nina. The anxiety and paranoia are not just conveyed through Portman’s breathy, occasionally whiny, delivery of her lines, but through fast, frantic cuts, gruesome sound effects, startling visuals, and the dramatic music. The audience questions the events of the movie when it becomes obvious that Nina is clearly insane.

Regardless of the viewer’s attitude towards Nina and her insanity, it is undisputed that Portman turns out a moving and electric performance in Black Swan. I struggle to think of a film where I was so totally engrossed. Watching raptly to see if she would falter, I held my breath as the rapid camera shots, disorienting, spinning angles, and the thunderous music were nearly over-stimulating for me as an audience member, much less for the mentally unbalanced ballerina. She hallucinates during her glorious performance of the black swan’s coda that she sprouts glossy, black wings. The magnificence of her transformation is enhanced by the lush, romantic, and expressive Tchaikovsky score. I found myself tearful at her triumph as she looked into the audience one last time after ascending atop the mountain, having achieved artistic apotheosis and bleeding from her fatal wound, before plunging to her death.

Black Swan depicts the struggle for perfection and the battle of an artist to achieve despite a wounded mind. There is some sort of voyeuristic thrill in seeing Nina’s madness; the unfamiliarity with and perhaps ignorance of the general audience of mental illness and the outer limits of the mind is quite possibly the reason why the film has become so popular. Nina’s descent into madness allows her to ascend to the most perfect expression of her craft. She is obsessed and consumed by the role she tortures herself to play, and her only chance to achieve greatness is to lose control.

The film suggests a fine line between genius and madness, and that the first cannot exist without the second. Black Swan is both visceral and surreal, and the depiction of mental illness as a means of creative achievement is breathtaking. “This is your moment,” Nina hears throughout the film, and it is in the actual performance, the ultimate submission of her mind and body to the dance, that makes the film so utterly enthralling.

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