SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
When Black Swan first came out, my mother outright banned me from seeing it. Our family friend who works as a rent-a-cop for a cinema had seen bits and pieces of it while strolling in and out checking for theater-hopping teenagers, and he told my mother it was “freaky” and that I shouldn’t be allowed to watch it.
This naturally made it irresistible. I was already deeply interested in it because it was about dance, and dance, albeit not ballet, was the majority of my life for twelve years. I also, I’ll admit with some shame, wanted to see a horror movie about mental illness, as this one was said to be – well, no one ever said “mental illness,” but they said the word “crazy” a lot, and those are the same thing, right? I was still more intrigued by the rumors that there was a lesbian sex scene in the movie. I’d been out to my parents, and close friends, for a few years, but my only attempt at a relationship had resulted in my having to leave a school because the other students spat at me or threw cold water on me. I was desperate for any representation, and at that “unwoke” time in my life, I didn’t know or care about the difference between good and bad representation.
I didn’t watch the movie for easily a whole year after it came out – maybe two; I did genuinely want to respect my mother’s wishes but at the same time I knew I could “handle” a little bit of horror. I don’t remember the time around when I first watched it; I only remember sitting there behind my bed, in case my mother should come in, watching Black Swan in fits and bursts on an illegal streaming website that buffered constantly.
I loved it instantly. I have never, and probably never will, identified more with a character than Nina Sayers. Not because of her hallucinations, although that’s an obvious parallel, but because of her driving, constant need to be perfect, and her absolute knowledge that everyone will hate her if she is not. It’s very easy to look at the beautiful, accomplished, disciplined ballerina character, and then look back at me – fat, mediocre at most things, lazy – and think, “clearly being perfect is not very important to you,” but that’s exactly why it’s so excruciating. My need for perfection is so paralyzing that I rarely manage to accomplish anything – perfection is unachievable, and if I cannot achieve perfection, why try? The difference between me and Nina Sayers is that Nina Sayers hasn’t realized that perfection is out of reach. Nina Sayers tries.
I don’t remember my feelings at the time, but when I watch Black Swan now, I feel strongly that it is not a Mental Illness Movie. I interpret it as a dramatic representation of the perfectionism and extreme stress endemic to careers like ballet which are inherently competitive and allow no room for error. Some people online try to “diagnose” Nina, as though she were a real person. I think it’s funny how people talk about movies as though they exist in some sort of objective reality – as though all questions which were left ambiguous by the filmmaker have a concrete answer somewhere. I don’t care if the light in the suitcase is Marsellus Wallace’s soul, and I don’t think Nina has any diagnosis. She’s a fictional character who has individual symptoms of many separate mental disorders, but ultimately it doesn’t matter to me because that’s not how I interpret the movie.
If Black Swan were a Mental Illness movie, it wouldn’t be amazing representation. There’s a pretty clear message that Nina is a hazard, if not to anyone else then to herself. If she lives through the ambiguous end, she should probably not continue doing ballet, regardless of diagnosis – it’s clearly a massive stressor for her. In my opinion, Nina the barista or Nina the accountant would do pretty well – maybe a little anxious but nothing like the events of the film. A life where there isn’t a competitive and rigorous atmosphere would be great for her, probably – she’s the type of person who would thrive in a 9-5 job.
Ultimately, Aronofsky uses the concepts and ideas surrounding mental illness to make the lead character and the audience deeply uncomfortable, but does so (in my opinion) in order to tell a story about control – the relentless control Nina attempts to have over her dancing and her life (and her eating habits), the control her mother still has over her despite the fact that she’s an adult, and the lack of control that Lily wreaks on everything she touches.
The final minutes of Black Swan make me sob harder than any movie I’ve ever seen. Harder than Schindler’s List. Harder than Das Leben Der Anderen, my favorite film. Harder than A Beautiful Mind. When Nina realizes she’s stabbed herself, and begins slowly crying, I cry with her. When she dances the delicate White Swan, I keep wibbling. As she ascends to the top of the “cliff,” as Odette prepares to throw herself into icy water because her prince has not saved her, I rock back and forth. And as Nina lands on the mattress, and the crowd applauds thunderously, and Tomás showers her with praise, I begin sobbing openly. As blood spreads around her, and the music swells, I cry because Nina Sayers will never get to be perfect again.