(SPOILERS, obviously. The shooting script differs enough from the finished movie that the dialogue excerpts in this post are transcribed from the movie, rather than taken from the screenplay, available here.)
A movie which I am only able to see in one context, and it is this context which makes it a heartbreaking and powerful experience. Richard Brody, whose reflections on every movie I read, and which I value whether or not I agree with them, writes of it in “Performance Anxiety” as a picture about art itself, and the devotion necessary to make it. One becomes so committed, that it is something like madness, and the movie embodies this: it is mad, and it is indifferent to its madness, and how its madness appears to others. However, I see Swan differently, can only see this movie in this one way, and I do so instinctively, viscerally, and not out of any attempt to give it any depth, or to fit pictures into a puzzle, but for the same reason a gesture signifies something so overwhelmingly to the watcher, and it can signify nothing else. I think it is very much a movie about sexual abuse, abuse we never see firsthand, abuse of Nina by her father, where the events of the movie are both echos and aftershocks of this sexual abuse. The mirroring that takes place, where Lily is a sensual double of the chaste Nina, makes me think of nothing other than the displacement that takes place among those who are abused: this did not happen to me, it happened to someone else; I did not do that, someone else did. The climactic moment of this film is, of course, when this girl realizes that all the qualities of her double are her own, and the profound emotional consequences of that. For me, this is the movie’s context, and it cannot be anything else; I think I can make a fairly diligent case for this, but whether it results from deliberate intent or strange accident, I cannot say.
I AWAIT THE DEVIL’S COMING
Black Swan opens with Nina dancing the lead in Swan Lake, her face wearing an expression of earnest sunniness, a desperate desire to please, that she carries through so much of the film. This is a movie dominated by handheld camera shots which seemingly stalk this beleaguered woman, and we have the first one here, but with a twist: it does not follow her, but Von Rothbart, trailing him as he moves toward her1. In Swan Lake, Von Rothbart is the magician who has turned several young women into swans, including Odette, the heroine of the story. Von Rothbart has a daughter, the black swan, Odile, who looks almost exactly like Odette2. Nina’s own father is noticably absent, his absence never explained, or even mentioned. The only images we have of a father are the figure of Leroy, and the cruel magician Rothbart. Odette and Von Rothbart dance together now, Von Rothbart becoming more and more monstrous, until we cut away to Nina in her bedroom. She relates to her mother the story of this dream, the frightening dance with Von Rothbart, but the mother gives no response, no indication that she’s even listening, and Nina looks down.
I had the most amazing dream last night. I was dancing the White Swan.
Different choreography, like the Bolshoi’s. It was the prologue, when Rothbart casts his spell.
This is the closest we get to a direct reference to the abuse Nina once suffered. The later relationships are a re-play of what once took place, and which explain the tension between mother and daughter, but never in anything like explicit terms. Nina’s father forced himself on her, just as Leroy forces himself on Nina, but Erica did not see her daughter as the victim, but as the seducer, just as Beth sees Nina as the seducer. All the conflicted feelings about sexual abuse – a daughter wanting to please a father, a daughter feeling like a whore for what she’s done, a mother suppressing her daughter’s own sexuality because she sees her as a rival, a daughter hating her own body for its attractive powers – all these are played out again in Nina’s contemporary relationships.
An important, often mentioned, trait of this movie is its campiness. Dennis Lim’s “Dirty Dancing: Is Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s tawdry thriller, a work of camp?” is perhaps the most in-depth and insightful investigation of this quality, but I don’t think it provides sufficient focus to what gives the film this trait. Camp cannot be knowing, it cannot be deliberate; there is something unworldly and innocent about it. If we associate musicals with camp, it is because these involve an unrestrained and guileless exposure, something child-like. The antithesis to this is the cynical and the carnal, and mixing these two opposing forms often produce dramatic contrasts, such as the musicals of Trey Parker and Matt Stone like Orgazmo and The Book of Mormon where wide-eye innocents sing profane songs, or Pennies From Heaven where characters stuck in the sinful earthliness of our world sing songs of naive hope. There can be no cynicism in camp, no immediate profit motive or ambiiton; it must embody an almost delusional ideal that art can make the world a better place – if camp is art that fails at this ideal, it does not make it any less poignant or diminish a fan’s admiration for it. Lim cites Showgirls as partial camp or failed camp, but I don’t think he sees the same contradictary forces I believe make it both camp and not camp: it is not camp because it was made with the intent to be very profitable through a lot of women getting naked in a movie directed by the guy behind Basic Instinct; it moves towards camp because instead of simply giving the people what they want, it is somehow a genuine attempt to try to make art – pornography does not need to be this ambitious.
What is central to Black Swan‘s campiness is not the ballet setting, or Swan Lake, or its horror movie elements, but the heroine, Nina, who has all the qualities of camp I have mentioned – she is guileless, innocent, and unworldly. Nina is a pliant blank, a woman who simply wanted to be a good daughter, but was forced to submit to sexual abuse as part of this role. Sex for her now has become something toxic. She still has sexual desires, but she has them only in another displaced identity – the girl Lily, who always ends up blending into a malevolent version of herself. A rigidly chaste figure like Nina would usually be seen from outside, as a figure of ridicule, but here we adopt her perspective entirely, without irony, and this is what gives the movie its campiness. Critics have written of the part as one playing to Natalie Portman’s focus and control – but I don’t see this at all. The power in this role is that it is entirely affectless, vulnerable, without the safety net of irony. Nina is a ridiculous figure, but she is ridiculous for tragic reasons – yet Portman makes no attempt to curb the ridiculousness of this figure, and the ridiculousness only makes her more heartbreaking, underscoring the tragedy at the heart of her life. It is this pliant blankness, whose unworldliness is so alien to us now, so alien especially in a place like New York City, which summons in the observer the idea that this woman must be the victim of abuse. “Black Swan: Movie about Mother-Daughter Sexual Abuse” is a blog post that takes an entirely different perspective on who is responsible for Nina’s sexual abuse; I do not agree with the hypothesis, but I highlight it as an example of how Nina’s pose itself, outside of physical evidence or theories of who is responsible, provokes the visceral reaction that this woman has been such a victim.
After breakfast with her mother, Nina goes to ballet school, and we get the first of many handheld shots where Nina is pursued. This is entirely consistent with a woman haunted by abuse – she is a woman who never loses the sense of being prey. Beth is the star ballerina, Leroy’s girlfriend, but because she is now of a certain age, she will soon be let go. Nina looks up to her, admires her, as a daughter might look up to a maternal figure. When Beth storms out of her dressing room, Nina steals some of the items that mark a woman from a girl – her perfume, earrings, and lipstick. We then see her wearing lipstick for the first time in a meeting with Beth’s boyfriend, Leroy, and we assume it is Beth’s lipstick. It is just as if a little girl might try out the lipstick of an older sister or mother, a daughter playing the role of her mother.
Leroy forces himself on her, to which she is passive until finally, she bites him – he is astonished at the violence of this reaction. She is perhaps reacting not just to this incident, but her past abuse as well. This moment and its aftermath contain all the ambiguties of this earlier abuse – she is playing chaste role-playing, her father assaults her, she feels that she provoked this reaction in her father, and her mother reinforces this, blames her for being a seducer. She gets the lead role in Swan Lake, and though she did not consent to Leroy’s assault, she is viewed as the temptress, that the role was given in return for her sexual consent – someone writes WHORE on the mirror. But perhaps not someone else: it is written in lipstick, and we immediately think of Beth’s lipstick, and that Nina has written this in condemnation of herself – because she has been assaulted, she must have brought it on. The self-hatred is what we would associate with a child who has been sexually abused by a parent – that the child blames themselves for provoking it, and if the parent shows love or affection for the child, gives gifts to the child – that affection, those gifts are shot through with the feeling that it is shown in exchange for some past sexual act.
This is a movie where a hatred of the body recurs again and again, and specifically, the post-pubescent body. Nina scratches constantly at her back, where she’ll develop wings. Her double, Lily – the part on which all sexual experience is displaced – has a flower openly tattooed onto her back, a flower that develops into wings during sex.
I cannot accept the movie’s look at ballet as a serious criticism of ballet in and of itself because Nina’s dancer life is so false – her role as ballerina is only as passive instrument, only at the command of others, taking no joy or excitement as a collaborative artist in what she does. Her diet and training are never seen as something like that of an intensely dedicated athlete or creator, but only as self-punishment. These images do not work for me at all as some kind of indictment of ballet: I think they fit perfectly with the idea of dance as an abstraction for sex. Nina can only see sex as an experience of suffering, where she is acting on the order of others – and this is what dancing is like for her as well. Her body is in pain from dancing, and of course, she often has bleeding wounds; we might take this as a symbol of her menstrual cycle, a sign of a sexuality repressed, or a more disturbing symbol: the breaking of Nina’s hymen, the loss of her virginity to her father3.
Her mother has made her feel that she tempted her father, that she wronged her mother, and Nina’s attitude towards her mother is one of constant penance for this past misdeed, and her dance training is masochistic, a self-adminstered punishment. Her bedroom remains that of a much younger girl, filled with stuffed animals; she wishes to remain in a pre-pubescent state forever, a place before her body got her into trouble. Her sensual double has a full, curvaceous body, while Nina starves herself so that her curves might disappear. When Lily dances, she is enthusiastic and enjoys herself, qualities absent from Nina’s dancing, who has made herself into a machine that will please others – an asexual pleasure. She makes all these attempts to desexualize herself and still she fails – she sits on the subway and an old man mimes masturbation. After the reception, she fixes on a statue that she feels kin to, one with wings, but no arms to defend itself, without sex, its face a mask of pain.
In “Performance Anxiety”, Brody rightly gives attention to the eyes of the four principals, and though these features are distinctive and emphasised, it is crucial that this is not a movie about voyeurism. The gaze primarily emphasised is not others spying on Nina, but Nina looking at herself – this self-awareness, this awareness of who she is, is what she fears and wants to avoid. This haunts her, but so does the look of her mother, though this is an implied gaze, and, I think, a gaze of something specific: her mother witnessing the abuse of her child, and not properly seeing it, seeing her daughter as the seducer, just as Beth sees Nina as a seducer when she’s done nothing. Nina masturbates, and suddenly she realizes that her mother is in her bedroom, asleep – there is the obvious, general shame of sex, but a more specific one as well; it is Nina’s sex that caused so much trouble. She walks into her mother’s studio, and the eyes of a drawing of herself, with a forced, pliant smile, follow her around the room – she cannot stop seeing what she has done though she only wants to forget it. A second time in the studio, all her mother’s work is alive with gazes, looking at her, blaming her, and doing nothing.
Both Erica and Nina know a secret, and both conceal it: when Nina scratches herself, Erica has cover-up they’ll use that they’ve used many times before.
Sounds like quite an evening. I wish I could’ve been there.
You know I asked.
I know you did. Susie told me. Guess he wanted you all to himself.
That’s not why.
I don’t blame him. Where’d you get these? (ERICA touches one of NINA’s diamond earrings, the ones she stole from BETH)
ERICA helps her take off her dress.
I can do it.
He must have been by your side…all night. Showing you off.
ERICA finishes unbuttoning NINA’s dress and sees the scratches on her back.
It’s just a rash.
A rash, what are you talking about?
It was worse a few days ago. It’s fine already.
You’ve been scratching yourself again.
No, I haven’t.
ERICA takes off her dress.
Thought you’d outgrown this disgusting habit.
They run to the bathroom.
Jesus christ, Nina, I’d thought you’re done with this. The shrugs. You keep wearing the shrugs. Sit down. You have the white one. And the pink one. And that’ll help hide it. And then I’ll dig out that expensive cover-up. We still have some. No one will see it.
ERICA cuts NINA’s nails.
It’s the rule, isn’t it? It’s all this pressure…I knew it’d be too much, I knew it.
ERICA cuts a nail too close, and NINA ows. ERICA kisses NINA’s knuckle.
Gonna be alright, gonna be alright, gonna be alright.
NINA looks away.
The last moment, where her mother’s gaze is not implied, but finally direct, is at the ballet itself. Nina is the black swan, the dark wings are her own, not displaced onto another – and her mother witnesses it. The sexual self that the black swan embodies, Erica always tries to suppress. Erica wants to keep Nina from going out, from having sex, not for any religious reasons (though the relationship of Erica and Nina is most often compared with the mother and daughter of Carrie, where the mother was a religious fanatic) but because she feels her daughter’s sexuality was destructive in the past. Nina takes a small bar to jam her door so that she isn’t confronted with her mother’s prying eye, but she blocks the door with such familiarity that I cannot help but think she has done this before: to keep her father from entering her bedroom.
Leroy plays the role of a proxy father, forcing himself onto Nina. After an unsatisfying rehearsal, he asks the cast to go, and he then plays the role of the prince, where he proceeds to touch her all over the place. He calls Beth his “little princess”, and, in the end, calls Nina “little princess” as well. Lily calls this “gross” though she doesn’t explain why – but isn’t “little princess” exactly the nickname a father would have for his daughter?
This encounter with Leroy is intensely painful for her, and it triggers the appearance of her double, Lily, who is both her and not her. When this figure first appears in the shadows, it is her, but in Lily’s clothing. She does not ask, “Who is there?”, but “Who is that?” The conversation that follows is that between two parts of Nina in reaction to an abusive father, with the self-confident, sexual Lily raising the most difficult, taboo questions. Nina looks at the father in platonic terms, the qualities which require admiration and inspire obedience. Lily brings up the possibility that fathers can be disobeyed, that this abuse is not an extension of a parent’s love, but a violation of it. Nina defends the abuse, the way a child might defend abuse, because otherwise it requires that they see the parent as violator – “well, you don’t know him”. Lily then raises the difficult subject of Nina’s own attraction to this man, the way a child’s pre-sexual and sexual feelings intertwine with abuse. We admire qualities in our parents, and we wish to see them in our mates, qualities that in others inspire attraction; an abused child sees these qualities in the abusive parent, and questions whether they are the guilty ones, whether they brought on such abuse, whether the admiration the child feels for the parent is a reciprocation of the parent’s explicit sexual feeling.
You can’t smoke in here.
Well…I won’t tell if you won’t.
LILY sits down.
Big day’s getting closer and closer, huh?
NINA stays silent.
Well, I can’t wait. I think you’re going to be amazing.
NINA takes a cigarette, and LILY lights her up.
So…do you want to talk about it?
NINA starts crying.
I just had a hard day.
Leroy playing a little too rough for you?
C’mon Nina, he’s a prick.
Sure. But it’s not like he’s all warm and fuzzy.
Well, you don’t know him.
Someone’s hot for teacher!
NINA gets up to leave.
C’mon, it’s okay. I don’t blame you.
I should go home.
C’mon Nina, I’m just playing around.
But NINA is gone.
When Nina gets the lead, Beth hates her for it, calls her a whore4, and then the maternal figure, Beth, is badly hurt in a car accident. This, I think, is an echo of the way an abused child might look at abuse, and how Erica has made Nina see it: I tempted my father, and I have destroyed my mother through this temptation. Leroy interviews Nina at his apartment about her intimate life, opening with the statement, “I don’t want there to be any boundaries between us”: there were no such boundaries with her real father, either. When asked about boyfriends and whether she’s a virgin, though she says otherwise, her whole demeanor suggests someone who has been entirely chaste, except perhaps for one taboo relationship. He asks the question of whether she enjoys sex, and though for most people the answer would be a qualified yes, Nina doesn’t answer – nor does she say why the answer might be no.
I don’t want there to be any boundaries between us.
No, me neither.
So…you got a boyfriend?
NINA (very softly)
And…you’ve had many in the past?
A few, but…no one serious.
LEROY looks at her for a while.
You’re not a virgin, are you?
NINA smiles, looks down.
So. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
NINA takes a drink.
And: you enjoy making love?
Aw, c’mon. Sex. Do you enjoy it?
NINA doesn’t answer.
We need to be able to talk about this.
NINA nods, always looking away and down.
I got a little homework assignment for you. Go home, and touch yourself. Live a little. It’s late. There’s lots of work tomorrow. The doorman will find a cab for you.
THE AWFUL TRUTH
As I wrote earlier, the first scene where Odile dances with Rothbart, a frightening, violent dance, is the closest we get to a direct reference to abuse. It is Rothbart as Nina’s father that carries such disturbing power for her, not Rothbart the character itself. During the concluding ballet, when she is backstage, the actor playing Rothbart gives greeting, and she barely notices him.
There are three other scenes when Rothbart shows up, all frightening. Nina looks at herself in the mirror, and the reflections take a life of their own, looking back at her. In the corner of the mirror, his perspective gazing down on her, is a photo of Rothbart. She wishes to forget this memory, she never mentions it, and yet it is there – she knows who she is and what she’s done, her own reflections confront her with this.
Another is much, much more direct. Lily is the identity on which all of Nina’s sexuality is displaced; at crucial moments, of course, there is no separate person, and she is Lily. Such is the case where Nina spies Lily having sex with Leroy, the father figure. Suddenly, the scene changes nightmarishly. It is now Nina on the table having sex with Leroy. And then: Leroy is no longer Leroy, but Rothbart, Odile’s father.
The music used to score this is the same as in the opening scene, the frightening dance. That this discovery fits the pattern of a previous sequence is notable as well. Nina practices with the dancer playing the prince, but Leroy tells her she’s doing the part of the black swan wrong. The lights go out, and Leroy has to yell that they’re still working, and the lights go back on. He dismisses the others, then practices with Nina alone, playing the part of the prince, fondling and kissing her. He ends the session by telling her why she’s doing the part wrong, which might be why someone might have told her she’s not being a good daughter: she’s not responding to his passion in kind – it is she who should seduce him, not the other way around. We now have this second sequence, where she practices practices practices, repetitively, punishingly, at such length that the accompanist finally leaves. She then is haunted by mirror images that seem to turn round and scrutinize her with a cold, piercing look – they can see all of her, all her memories. The lights go out, just like before, but this time no one listens when she says someone’s still working. She goes out to the stage, and there makes her discovery.
There is one other moment when Rothbart shows up, and it would have entirely eluded me were it not for the valuable work done at the Cinematic Corner by the blogger Sati, “48 hidden images in ‘Black Swan'” (reached via the Reddit thread, “48 hidden images in Black Swan”), which breaks down the images of the nightclub scene, images we see only in the briefest of microseconds. I assumed, wrongly, that they show us Nina relaxing, when they only do so on the surface. Looked at frame by frame, they show nothing of the kind, but only reinforce the idea of a woman falling apart, the images often not of dancers in the club but constructs from her own hallucinations, chock full of images of importance to her. There is much in these, but I believe there is at least one obvious recurrent theme: Rothbart, a symbol standing in for someone else, as her predator.
One of the first frames has the statue which fascinated Nina in the background:
We then have the gates to the Swan Lake castle:
Followed by the white swan, Odette, with Rothbart behind her:
She dances with Andy, Rothbart in the background:
She dances with Andy, who first becomes Leroy:
Then transforms into Rothbart:
Another nightmarish frame of Rothbart:
Though I consider the work on Cinematic Corner on this film invaluable, I disagree on one point of their description of these frames. They label these eyes as belonging to the black swan; I think they are Rothbart’s eyes, the same distinctive eyes that burn with frightening brightness in the opening dance:
Rothbart silhouetted by the moon:
In the arms of Rothbart:
Nina seems to remember something very upsetting, while to her side is an image of herself splitting apart. From here, until Lily shows up, calling Nina’s name, we hear on the soundtrack, “Sweet girl, sweet girl” over and over in a distorted singsong; this, of course, is a name her mother has for her, and which Lily mockingly says after she brings Nina to orgasm5. Her mother may call her a sweet girl, but there are things in her past that make Nina feel not sweet at all, but corrupt.
Nina represses her sexuality because she looks at it as a destructive force, something which her mother blames for tempting her father, and which she associates with the pain of abuse. In the club, we see visions of an asexual ideal as well as a few moments which contain images that specifically reference female sexuality. The asexual ideal shows up in the images of the statue, as well as a brief frame of the black swan distorted into this sexless figure.
Still focused on this upsetting memory, while to her right we see someone with the distinct eye shadow of the black swan:
Which then distorts into this alien, hairless, sexless creature:
Then, an image of her nonchalant, yet by her side an image of her screaming in agony:
Still outwardly calm, paired with an obvious sexual image, a bare breasted woman with her face veiled:
A realization, of something horrific, where in one frame she is the black swan, and in others, she splits apart:
The black swan behind the scrim of her room’s butterfly wallpaper. Nina is a butterfly who forces herself to remain larval, the black swan is the sexual self she both wants to be and fears being:
Again, transfixed by a memory, and Rothbart right beside her. After this image, the “Sweet girl” singsong stops.
After she dances with Andy and Tom, these dark images cause her to reflect, and she never dances again with the boys, dancing only with Lily, who, transforms into herself. Another memory, with the statue’s pained face and Lily in the background:
With Lily, and the tower from which she’ll fall to her death:
Nina with Lily, the moon by their side; the moon is in the background of one of Odette’s dances, and a woman’s menstrual cycle was once thought to be linked to the cycle of the moon:
Nina with Lily, Nina with Lily and the butterfly wallpaper as a background:
Another disturbing image of Rothbart:
Another of the obvious images of female sexuality, this time it’s the curve of a woman’s breast:
The moon, again:
A woman’s breasts, underwater:
The eyes of Rothbart staring out at her, a hand holding a moon-like globe with light falling on the water. The ocean’s tides are moved by the moon’s motion, just as a woman’s menstrual cycle was once thought to be guided by the lunar sphere. Odette is under Rothbart’s spell, just as the ocean is in the command of the moon. A hand holds this globe as if it possesses it: her father has possessed her; her father has taken her virginity.
She was dancing with Lily, now she is dancing with herself:
The black swan in the background:
(A compilation of these images was put together on youtube, “Black Swan Club Scene (EVERY single hidden picture)” by “SchwarzerFrost1989”, who was kind enough to link back to this post.)
LAUGHTER IN THE DARK
Nina is the little princess, but also the swan queen. In the credits, Erica’s title is Erica Sayers / The Queen. Leroy’s name isn’t the american pronunciation, Leroy, but the french – “Le Roi”, “the king”. Nina takes over the role of queen from Beth, Leroy’s girlfriend. When Leroy makes the announcement that Nina is taking on the role of queen, there is applause, but there is also Lily laughing at something very funny about this. Lily, who delves into the taboo areas that Nina forbids herself, and who asks the taboo questions that Nina does not ask, but who is ultimately just a projection of Nina, is laughing at a joke that Nina knows, but does not allow herself to laugh at: a father figure is giving her the mother figure’s role, just like before. Lily’s laughter here echoes the recurrent, eerie laughter in the movie, which I think always centers around the sick joke of Nina’s relationship with her father, and the memories Nina does not want to have.
Other than its first use during the opening credits, we hear the laughter whenever there is a moment that might remind Nina of her past abuse, a symbol loaded with the possibility of her past abuse, or when a reflection of Nina, a Nina without a mask, looks back at Nina coldly and fully, as if seeing every part of her, including all the horrors she keeps hidden. The laughter is there when Leroy kisses Nina for the first time; the moment blood (which might carry a hymenal or menstrual association) drops into the bath water (a moment discussed in greater detail later); when Nina cuts her nails and suddenly she is a fiercer, less saccharine figure; her reflection turning as the photo of Rothbart looks down; her reflection turning when she practices alone after the accompanist leaves. And there is one last instance of this laughter, and it’s crucial: after the lights go out in the practice room, Nina goes to the empty stage, sees Rothbart across the wings, and as she crosses it, she hears the haunting laughter, which then becomes very real, the laughter of Lily having sex with Leroy, then Nina with Leroy, then Nina with Rothbart.
But: as we bid adieu to one star, we welcome another. We’re opening our season with my new version of Swan Lake. Taking the role of the new swan queen, the exquisite Nina Sayers.
A compilation of these moments on youtube.
THE NEXT TIME YOU SEE ME, IT WON’T BE ME
What Leroy keeps demanding of Nina, what she will not give, is complicity, that she actively participate in sex, that she enjoy it. This, I think, relates to one of the great shames that victims of sexual abuse feel, that the pleasurable apsect of sex is not entirely absent – and though this does not make abuse any less abuse, it is what shames Nina, and causes her to turn away from sex. The image of Rothbart having sex first with Lily, then her, is frightening because she sees herself consenting and enjoying it. She does not want to be the person who did these things, and so she isn’t; it was someone else, a double, who did these things and to whom these things were done. She consents, and did not consent at all. This idea is there again when she clearly sees Lily put something into her drink, but drinks it anyway – then, after a debauched night, gets upset at Lily for putting it in her drink. It is on this same night that I think there’s another crucial moment, in the cab ride home. Lily walks her fingers over to Nina’s pants, but Nina gently takes them away, and then holds her hand: no, right now, I just want the comfort of a held hand. She looks out the window, light passes over the glass, and we hear on the soundtrack a man having an orgasm: it seems unconnected to any man in the movie, and maybe it is a memory that requires the comforting clasp of another’s hand, and maybe this is a memory of her own father.
These clasped hands are of sufficient importance that they show up in the club scene, which is chock full of images, from her past and future, significant to Nina. She sees Rothbart, the statue she feels kin to, the tower from which she’ll fall to her death, and these hands in a specific context; Rothbart’s eyes stare out, a hand holds a globe, possesses it, and off to the side, the clasped hands.
Dance, for Nina, is always associated with pain. Her own participation in sex she links with self-destruction and death. She displaces sex onto women who aren’t her, doubles that she envies for their self-confidence and power. Her first double is herself, walking past with a cool gaze unafraid of anything in the night, before she pushes this identity further away onto a more sensual type – Lily, who’s curvy with olive skin6, and has no inhibition about pissing in a sink.
A small note: Nina’s earrings are always rounded, while Lily’s are almost always sharp, sword-like, we might even call them phallic. Lily has the sexual confidence and strength that Nina associates with a man.
That she envies Lily’s self-confidence, her strength, and wants it, shows up in one particular scene – one that makes clear that this very strength is her own. She is at home with her mom and they fight; her mom is worried that Leroy will prey on her daughter. Even though he already has, Nina denies that anything has taken place. They get into the thorny issue of Erica giving up her career for Nina, and Nina mocks her. Erica asks her daughter about her skin, then insists that she see it, and Nina refuses her bluntly: no. The very moment that she shows a strength she’s never shown before in dealing with her mother, Lily suddenly shows up, knocking at their door.
ERICA and NINA, at opposite corners of the room, ERICA sewing one of NINA’s shoes, NINA tempering the material of another with a lighter.
Has he tried anything with you?
NINA looks up, then back down, but doesn’t answer.
He has a reputation.
NINA still doesn’t answer.
I have a right to be concerned, Nina. You’ve been staying late so many nights, rehearsing. I hope he isn’t taking advantage, that’s all.
Nina now looks up.
I just don’t want you to make the same mistake I did.
NINA (a quiet sarcasm)
Not like that. I just mean as far as my career is concerned.
NINA (still quiet, but fiercer sarcasm)
ERICA gives NINA a long, hard look. It’s as if you can hear the metal of a sword unsheathed. From now until NINA’s “Nothing”, ERICA gives NINA an unrelenting stare, while NINA looks down.
The one I gave up to have you.
NINA (the sarcasm is not as bold, but still there)
At twenty eight.
She punctuates this with a look up at her mother. NINA has the strength to meet ERICA’s gaze.
How’s your skin?
NINA goes back to looking down.
Are you leaving it alone?
NINA hm-mmms, without looking up.
Let me see.
ERICA stands up, and her expression could break through steel.
Take off your shirt.
NINA looks up at her mother, and she has inherited enough of her mother’s hard stare to meet hers.
At this very moment, the doorbell rings, and both women turn in the direction of their possible guest.
The struggle between these two types is not rote game playing, it is a struggle because it requires Nina to see the earnest, affectless type as the false one, and this other, stronger type as her truer self. Yet she also looks at this other self as evil, evil for what she’s displaced onto her – the act of having sex with her father, and evil because this girl, this truer self, can destroy who she is. For her to become this other person, she must confront her memories of the past, and this she cannot do. Nina masturbates, but stops when she sees her mom in the room – her mom has made her think that her sexuality destroyed their lives. In the bathtub, she masturbates again, then sinks below the water. That she has this sexual desire makes her want to drown. Blood, from nowhere, suddenly appears in the water. I associate it with blood of the hymen – this girl lost her virginity to her father. Right after, in the movie’s most frightening moment, a malevolent Nina appears above the water, ready to drown her.
When she and Lily are in her bedroom, it is not a sign that Nina is actually into girls – it’s because the only sexual partner she trusts is herself. Yet even this fantasy goes awry – because she wants this girl to be both herself, the one person she trusts, and another displaced identity that is not her. At various moments Lily is briefly not Lily, but Nina – the first, and most striking one, her reflection in a mirror.
Lily does not simply eat Nina out – she consumes her7. During sex, there are intermittent, frightening moments for Nina, when Lily is suddenly her. Nina reaches orgasm, and this physical pleasure makes her see clearly that Lily, this other on whom all her sexuality has been displaced, is in fact her as well. This briefly destroys her – the other Nina smothers herself with a pillow.
Nina returns the lipstick, perfume, and earrings to Beth, and Beth is upset: “You stole them from me?” The scene’s importance is, I think, as an echo of earlier abuse: Nina takes items that signify to a little girl what it is to be a woman and Nina stole her mother’s role as her husband’s lover. Nina is treated as the guilty one, but to present herself as the victim of abuse would require that she acknowledge to herself that abuse took place, so she instead presents herself as another kind of victim, a girl whose role is in turn being stolen by someone else, this sensual other, Lily. Beth stabs herself in self-hatred, much as Erica may have shown self-hatred – outrage at her daughter as romantic rival, rather than abuse victim. Beth stabs herself, and suddenly it is Nina stabbing herself – her role is Beth’s, her role is Erica’s, she has tempted their men, a proxy father and an actual father, and she wishes to destroy herself for it.
That Nina feels she has taken the place of both Beth, a mother proxy, and Erica, her actual mother, in relations with Leroy, a father proxy, and her actual father, shows up in this scene and the next as she seemingly sees herself in both roles. After leaving the hospital, where Beth transforms into her, Nina returns to a seemingly abandoned house. She washes her hands in the empty kitchen, turns the light off, and hears someone say, “sweet girl”, her mother’s name for her which recurs through the movie, a phrase that haunts her because she doesn’t feel sweet at all. She switches the lights back on, but instead of her mother, it’s her in the hospital gown, as Beth. She rushes to her mother’s studio, where the paintings confront her, chanting “Sweet girl, sweet girl, it’s my turn, it’s my turn.” She looks in the mirror, and again, sees herself as Beth, then, when she turns round to confront the reflected figure, she sees not herself, but her mother.
The movie’s last part revolves around Nina fully becoming this other self, and how this acceptance is annihilating. She throws out all the dolls that she’s kept, the souvenirs of her prepubescent life. Her skin tone and hairstyle change, so that when she lies in bed before throwing out the dolls, we might briefly think we’re looking at Lily. Finally, the rash in her back sprouts dark feathers, her feet web, her eyes go blood red, and her legs arch like a swan’s – it is all like the physical changes of pubescence, the very transformation that caused her so much trouble.
She asks Leroy for help because she thinks Lily is trying to take over her part; but Lily, the strong, sexual girl is already taking over her part: she fights back against her mom and escapes from the house; when Leroy talks about her not playing the lead, Nina refuses him with steely will.
A SWAN SONG (FOR NINA)
Before getting to the last sequence, culminating in the image of Nina lying back on a mattress, it might be helpful to point out that the movie is organized around variations of Nina right before going to sleep and waking from sleep, with some of the most important moments coming at this time. Although the practice for Swan Lake must takes months, the action of the movie seems to occur in less than a week and a half. I mention only necessary and relevant events around these moments of waking up and going to sleep.
The movie opens with her nightmare of Rothbart, but rather than waking up disturbed, she has a vague smile on her face, as if unwilling to see the fearful images we’ve just seen. Something then briefly changes in her expression, as if inferring some memory hidden in this dream, and then she returns to smiling happiness.
She returns home from ballet, her practice having gone awry with Lily’s entrance, and she’s very upset. Her mother re-assures her daughter, “Everything will be better in the morning. It always is.” I bold the last for empahsis, because I don’t think she speaks just of today, but events long ago as well. She then calls her the name that repeats again and again, always with mocking irony throughout the film, “sweet girl”.
Nina gets the lead, there is the reception where Beth calls her a whore, and accuses her of using sex to get the part. Leroy asks about her sexual history, and her mother cuts her nails after she sees the rash on her back. When shes wakes up this time, she appears in a much worse state. It is after this that she tries to masturbate, before stopping when she sees Erica in the room.
Possibly in the evening of the same day, she finds a bar to block the door, but does not put it in place yet. Nina lies in bed, and Erica asks, “Are you ready for me?” Those who believe that Nina is sexually abused by her mother put great weight in this line, but I think this is a more conventional question of a mother asking her daughter whether she’s set to be tucked in. Though I think Erica is domineering, I don’t her as someone with a sensual attitude towards her daughter. From all her visible behavior, we see the opposite attitude, of someone trying to eliminate Nina’s sexuality.
Nina rebels against her mother, she goes out with Lily, on the way home in the cab we hear what might be her father for the only time in the movie. Sex with Lily makes her orgasm, and then destroys her – Lily does not simply resemble her, she is Lily, and her double now smothers her. She wakes up for the third time in the movie, and she’s in even worse shape.
She goes home, and lies in bed, but does not sleep. She smashes her music box and throws out her dolls.
Nina has the stunning vision of Rothbart with herself, then goes to the hospital where Beth transforms into her. She flees home, there to be haunted by the role of proxy mother, a hospital gowned Beth who is actually her, who then becomes her own mother. She rushes to her bedroom, blocks the door, and her transformations become more disturbing and violent; red eyes, feathers, arched legs. Her unfamiliarity with these new legs cause her to trip, and she is knocked unconscious.
The focus for the first time in a wake-up scene is not on Nina, but her mother, most likely up all day and night, by her side, in the bedroom. Her mother has placed mittens on Nina to keep her from harming herself by scratching, but we might also see these as insulation from the tactile world, a last attempt to keep the sensual at bay. Nina wakes up, and for the first time, she does so not in the morning, but at night – she’s been unconscious for so long she might miss the premiere. She fights past her mother and leaves the bedroom.
A compilation of these scenes on youtube.
At the ballet, Nina waits in the wings to go onstage, looks over at Leroy, and then at the actor playing the prince. She sees Lily aggressively sexual with this man, an aggressiveness she both wishes for, and which she turns away from because she associates so much of sex with her abuse. She is held aloft during the dance by this prince, and just as abuse colors the later sexual lives of the abused, it affects her here: she is held in this man’s arms, and she is suddenly afraid, and she falls out of them. If this dance with the prince is like sex, then what makes her fall out of the prince’s arms is the past association of sex with her father’s abuse – she sees Lily in the chorus, and then sees herself in Lily’s place; Nina is also Lily – Odette does not simply resemble the black swan, Odile, she is Odile, and Rothbart is her father.
She fights Lily, and now finally the line between these two selves, the image of chastity she holds onto and the person on which she displaces her whole sexual identity, literally shatters. The mirror breaks during the fight, and Nina stabs her opposite with one of its shards. She dances the part of Odile, the black swan, Von Rothbart’s daughter, with assurance. Where before Leroy imposed himself on her, she now kisses him passionately.
Her literal transformation into a black swan bookends Rothbart’s literal physical transformation in the very frightening dance which opens the film. Immediately after her physical change, which mirrors that of Rothbart, we have a scene which links easily with this one: the discovery of a bleeding mortal wound, and that Lily – or at least the Lily we have seen through much of this movie – is a construct of her imagination.
When she returns to her dressing room, she discovers that Lily’s body was never there, a fight never took place, the qualities of this person have been hers all along. Just as her orgasm was followed by her being smothered, her becoming the black swan is followed by her death: she wants to be this self-confident, sexual other, yet if she is this other, then it means certain things have been done to her, and she has done certain things, and this makes her want to destroy herself. She extracts the mirror shard: literally, her reflection is inside of her. Her wound is like a bloody vagina – a symbol so literal it requires no explanation.
We see her weep as she holds the shard, and her tearful expression is not that of one anticipating death, but one of remembering.
Though she is literally dying inside, she now wipes away her tears and puts on a white mask of make-up, an act very much of a part with a life spent having to hide the pain she suffered.
She goes out for the last dance. She ascends the steps, and just as she looked from Leroy over to the actor playing the prince, her gaze now moves from Von Rothbart to the prince on stage. We see her mother in the audience, the first time we see her outside the shelter of her house, and just as she witnessed her daughter with her own father, she has now seen her daughter transformed into this sexual self, the black swan.
Nina falls from the stairs onto the mattress, the camera closes in on her face like a lover, and it is like her own submission to her father as she tumbles onto the bed: a surrender to her father, and to death as well. The cast gathers round and they realize that she is dying. Her last words are to Leroy, the proxy father. “I felt it”, she says. LeRoy asks, “What?”, and she answers, “Perfect”, and this is not about the performance now, but what took place years ago: the pain she felt then is one she has always felt, no matter how much she has tried to hide it, and there has been something perfect in what she suffered, like a bullet that is a direct hit on a mortal place. “It was perfect”, are her last words. When Odette dies, Rothbart’s spell over her is broken, and in her last moments, the spell Nina’s father has cast on her has ended as well. This campy, irony-free girl is for the first time ironic: she speaks of her past trauma the way we speak of an ideal sexual experience, but she is not speaking of it as an ideal sexual moment at all. What was inflicted on her then was the perfect wound, and it has now destroyed her.
1 The image of a camera shooting from behind a character with their back turned, looking at Nina, is repeated twice again, both with significant figures.
Again, Rothbart in the opening:
Leroy’s first entrance, looking down at the practice session:
Nina, looking at herself, in the practice room, after Leroy fondled her. Nina transforms into Lily when she makes her entrance.
3 The connection between sex and the grinding, disciplined forms of the ballet is not simply the intuitive, obvious connection between dance and sex, but a point made as well through the use of music.
We see Nina dance alone in front of a mirror, accompanied by “Lose Yourself”, a sinister, pulsing piece that moves over the same notes, again and again. The music’s steady, prominent beat might be called sexual, but it is a joyless, menacing, machine-like sex. This scene might be a solo practice, and we might call “solo practice” a euphemism for something else. In the midst of this practice, something interrupts her, the broken toenail. Something interrupts her sexual thoughts as well: a past violation, a past breaking.
“Lose Yourself” is played again, when Nina tries to masturbate. She stops abruptly when she realizes that her mother has been in the room, asleep, the whole time. Erica either did not see, or refused to see the abuse which took place, and her reaction to this was to restrict and restrain her daughter, who she saw as the instigator.
We then have a brief play of “Lose Yourself” in the cab, when Lily moves her hand into Nina’s pants, and it then fades out when Nina makes clear she wants to hold someone’s hand right now, not anything more forward than that. We then have Nina possibly remembering something, the sound of a man having an orgasm, and this might be a past memory of her father. Each time, the “Lose Yourself” theme ends with a moment that might be a veiled reference to past abuse: the broken toenail, the mother who is close to her daughter’s sexual intimacy but asleep to what takes place, the sound of a man climaxing.
The theme from “Lose Yourself” occurs one last time, in the selection “Opposites Attract”, which plays over the sex scene between Nina and Lily. Lily, of course, is not exactly there: this is Nina with a fantasy version of herself, the only partner she trusts. It can be thought of as a variation on the first scene featuring “Lose Yourself”; that was solo practice in front of a mirror, and this is a sort of solo practice before a mirror too. Where before the horns jumped in when Nina saw her mother, now they sound when Nina realizes that Lily is her, that Lily’s sexuality isn’t someone else’s but her own, and is reminded of the painful history which accompanies this part of her.
4 The dialogue between them:
BETH appears, suddenly.
Beth! I’m so sorry to hear you’re leaving the company.
What’d you do to get this role? He always said you were such a frigid little girl. What’d you do to make him change his mind? Did you suck his cock?
Not all of us have to.
You fucking whore. YOU FUCKING LITTLE WHORE.
Woah woah woah…what’s going on here?
I NEED TO TALK TO YOU.
Beth. My little princess. Please.
I’m coming by later. I have something for you. A token of my appreciation.
You make the most of it, Nina.
5 She calls her this in one of the first scenes, right after the opening nightmare, and before the first ballet session.
ERICA moves to put a top on NINA
ERICA sees the mark where NINA’s wings will sprout.
NINA looks at the blemish in the mirror.
ERICA puts the top on her daughter.
You sure you don’t want me to come with you?
NINA gives a smiling no thanks.
ERICA hugs NINA, a sober look on ERICA’s face.
6 That the more sensual type is always the more “ethnic” type is a trope still with us, though from the perspective of many in the past, we are all ethnic types now.
7 There might be a jokey foreshadowing to this early on in the movie, during the reception. Nina and Lily have their first exchange of dialogue in the bathroom. Nina is about to leave as Lily gets ready to piss in a sink; Lily asks her to stay and keep her company, but Nina leaves anyway. Right after this, Leroy runs into Nina as the reception lets out and these are his opening lines:
Hey. They tried to eat you alive, but there you are.
(The material on the club scene was added to this post on February 16th – when that edit was made, earlier material on the different earrings of Nina and Lily, as well as a brief examination of the post-practice conversation between the two women got taken out. It was put back in the next day. Some small additions and edits have been made since then. The footnote on “Lose Yourself” was added March 7th. This same footnote was edited on March 13th, because I’d forgotten about the use of this music in the cab ride. On December 9th, 2013, I changed the section head “A Mirror, Darkly”, which I’d never liked, to “I Await the Devil’s Coming”, taken from Mary McLane’s memoir, whose re-issue I learned about from The A.V. Club’s “Our favorite books of the year”. On April 17, 2015, this post underwent a session of copy editing.)
(All images copyright Fox Searchlight Pictures.)