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Black Swan explained (2010) | In pursuit of perfection

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Discussion

  1. Hi Chris,
    Good day. I don’t have any questions, your article answered them all. I just wanted to thank you for sharing your insight into what is a great movie. I had just finished watching Black Swan after having not seen it for at least 5 years and the question I had concerning the plot and what was real and what was just imagined arose again. I must have watched this movie half a dozen times when it first came out. Aronofsky is defiantly in my top 10 directors and I have seen most of his work (I saw Pi when it first came out and was impressed but what really got me was Requiem for a Dream, which I consider to be a masterpiece). I love to read about the subtext and not so obvious messages some movies are able to provide and you did a great job in answering all the questions I have had for a long time about a great movie. Please keep up the great work. Thank you.

  2. I’m still so confused about everything. Was Nina really the black swan or was all that in her head? Did she really sleep with Lily or was that in her too? I just have so many questions. If you could answer them that would mean the world to me.

    • It was all in her head. Read the article

  3. So I just watched the actual ballet, Swan Lake after having watched the movie about 3 or 4 times. While the ballet originally has the two parts, the white swan and the black swan, increasingly, both parts are danced by the same ballerina. The few parts where the two dancers would appear onstage together have been gradually removed and merged into a part of just one dancer. Which begs the question, did Lily ever exist at all? How is THAT for a mindf*cK

    • Karen-I had the same thought process regarding lily. Wondering if she ever existed, or just one of Nina’s hallucinations; the ideal inspiration for the black swan. She is present for most all of the pertinent moments in Nina’s development as a character. Every person who “wrongs” her has some vignette with Lily; even the male lead who drops Nina…we see Lily have a sexual moment with him right before the scene with the drop.
      Or Lily could be real, but just simply a soloist. One who’s Nina’s obsession, the star of Nina’s hallucinations, the one who causes Nina to grow up and become a “woman.” Makes you wonder…

    • I thought Lily was a hallucination multiple times while watching. I think there are multiple scenes that allude to this interpretation.

  4. Half of the article is about The Wrestler. I know it is directed by the same person but I don’t see the need of the comparisons between Black Swan and The Wrestler. They are two different movies.
    Yeah but after watching Black Swan, I have a question regarding the relationship between Nina and her mother. Was Nina abused by her mother? Was her mother jealous of her?

    • Watch on YouTube “Narcissistic Mothers, Part 2” by Joseph Burgo, PhD. He focuses on Nina’s mom as a representative example of Narcissistic Abuse. He has included a few clips from the movie!

  5. Did she write “whore” on the mirror herself? Also what was the point of the lipstick, like what did it symbolize?

    • I believe Beth wrote “whore.” She believed that Nina was sleeping with Thomas to steal her place. Nina stole the lipstick to be more like Beth

    • Quite sure the red lip stick symbolized “womanhood”, or at least sensuality ( a red lip isn’t often considered very bold and seductive.)

  6. My question is Does Nina really die at the end of the movie? It’s hard to believe that she stabs herself with the piece of glass in the dressing room fight scene. I’m wondering if she was hallucinating then to.

    • she hallucinated stabbing Lily. She actually stabbed herself. It’s part of what made her performance perfect. She dies at the end, just like how the white swan kills herself at the end of the performance. The ballet performance in the movie are supposed to parallel.

      • Not necessarily. I think that both Aronofsky and Portman have said that Lily survives. What dies (what she killed!) is her protracted girlhood, repression, etc., i.e. the White Swan. That’s why the blood’s position is almost menstrual (Aronofsky apparently told Portman this at the time).

        Also, there are the practical concerns: The wound wasn’t very deep, and thus didn’t cut any internal organs, otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to perform. The dancing causes it to open up, hence the increasing blood, but it’s survivable. Thomas and the dancers run to get help immediately, putting pressure on the wound fights the bleeding, and Lincoln Center is across the street from a hospital.

        • It was Nina removing the glass from her self-inflicted wound that caused it to open up onstage.

    • I’m not sure if you receive this as a message, but if you do, see my reply to Ema. I’m among those who thinks that Nina survived.

  7. I don’t think Mila Kunis’s character Lily existed at all. No one greets her in the dressing room, Nina’s mom says “”it’s no one” when she comes to the door, she is never mentioned by name by anyone, and who the hell would continuously seek out friendship with someone behaving so rudely as Nina did to her? She was the black swan, in a Tyler Durst role. Pulling out the very essence of the passion Nina needed in order to sacrifice herself for the art. I only noticed this on my third viewing.

    • Annie—Thomas introduces Lily in one of her first scenes as having flown straight in from SF. Lots of side characters acknowledge her presence.

      • Lily is in three scenes before she enters rehearsal late and is introduced by Thomas as having just arrived from San Francisco… why introduce her as new when we’ve already seen her

        • Isn’t the first time we see her on the train, on the way to rehearsal? I don’t think we see her in rehearsal. So the introduction makes sense.

          • No, the first time is when everyone is making fun of Beth at minute 7. She says she missed her stop, slams her bag on the table and everyone looks at her. She keeps talking until she realizes no one is responding. The viewer can infer she’s the faceless one in the subway who got off before Nina because they are dressed the same. Then at minutes 8:30, 9:19 and 11:02, she is one of the dancers who is not tapped on their shoulder. She is formally introduced when she interrupts Nina’s audition for the Black Swan (not the White) at min 14:22. She’s fresh off the plane, dressed nothing like the one from the subway, and doesn’t need to get warmed up.

          • Thank you! So I’ve been looking into this for the last 15 minute and this is the conclusion that I’ve come to.

            Lily was there at the 7 minute mark. Didn’t get tapped in that 8 minute to 11 minute period. We’re told just before the 11 minute mark that the soloists who weren’t tap are supposed to come back at 5pm to audition. So there’s a time where Nina, Lily, and the others could leave the studio. Which is why Nina herself is also dressed completely differently than she was on the train. Different scarf, hoodie, pants, etc. She clearly left the studio and is now back because it’s close to 5pm. That means Lily probably also left the studio. But didn’t come back prior to 5pm. She was late. Again. But she’s introduced this time because Thomas wasn’t there on her previous arrival and didn’t think to mention it during the morning session. Now that it’s a smaller group and Lily’s there in front of him, he calls her out. Her clothes are different because she also left and came back. And she’s fresh off the plane as in she got to NYC within the last day or so. It’s more of a euphemism than literal. And she doesn’t need to warm up because of the morning warm up that they all already did.

            You can definitely make the argument that Nina’s already started to hallucinate and that Lily was never on the train and that the 14:22 mark is her first true appearance. But it would be a bit strange for Nina to be seeing Lily before having met Lily. I’d argue, rather, that Aronofsky just wanted to create that sense of duality by having her arrive late twice and have that slight moment of doubt and deja vu.

          • It just occurred to me that Lily interrupted Nina’s defense of Beth when everyone else was calling her a has-been. Then she did it again during Nina’s audition for the role of the Black Swan. She was the foil twice and in mirrored ways. She was mess when Nina was defending Beth and the other she was confident and flown in from SF during Nina’s most important audition of her career/life. The point is that we have already seen Lily three other times before she was introduced. She has already been the foil once

    • I 100% believe her character was real. If she wasn’t, Thomas wouldn’t have introduced her to the other dancers in the beginning and he wouldn’t have said that he talk to her about Nina whining. There are moments where Lillys character even denies things that Nina was hallucinating. I think her presence in Nina’s life was over exaggerated in nina’s head because she was hallucinating. Lily probably wasn’t even around Nina as much as Nina imagined. It was getting to her head that Lily wanted her spot, and she saw her face more and more.

  8. Thanks for such an in-depth analysis of Black Swan. I wanted answers behind the story plot and yours was the first article that appeared and the only one I needed to read.

  9. “Who wrote that – your mother? Referring to a great review in the N Y Times – we were in an elevator going to the fifth floor in the Hotel Ansonia.
    Yes, I identified with Nina because she was me and I was her. Living the life of a tenor in New York City in one’s twenties – was a trip. First you were the mortal enemy of any baritone who roamed the face of the earth. Being hit on by everyone from Mr. X at Columbia to divos and divas backstage or in the coffee shops of Broadway. If you sang like a God and I did, and you were drop dead good looking and I was – you were red meat. This was the asphalt jungle. Take away the green and smell of the jungles of Vietnam and you have just as deadly a theater to play in. The psychological abuse is rampant – whether tolerated from a jealous teacher who was a flunky tenor and became a member of the New York Vocal Teachers Association, or an overpriced coach playing for one of your auditions at City Opera. The undermining comments were the same. “It’s O. K. – you’ll do better next time” “It’s only one audition” “You forget there’s a rest right before you come in on – “Vieni, Vieni!” “You’re not ready to sing Rodolfo” “I’ll let you know when you should have a recital” [$10,000 later] I was on the same roster as Placido and Jose and Eric Seman of the Seman Agency said to me with a very Austrian accent, “ I cannot speak with you now – I must see Placido at the State Theatre he sings Cav and Pag today – Cav at City Opera this afternoon and Pag at the Met tonight!” When I won a full scholarship to a well known conservatory in New York the teachers tried to dissuade me from enrolling. One was a puny little man with a puny little tenor and the other was an over-the-hill bass that sounded like he was in one of the sub basements at Macy’s.
    I’ll never forget singing for a closet Nazi in Augburg, Germany. I entered the stage
    from stage left and looked out to see someone who was supposed to be the director behind the glare of the stage lights under the balcony. I took my position in the crook of the piano. Vas vollen zi zingen hauter? Ich zing der regiment’s tochter aria! With all eight high Cs? No, with all nine high Cs – I responded.
    The biggest indignity that I faced was actually being barred by one of my former
    Tenor teachers and Member of the New York Vocal Teachers Association in front of Carnegie Recital Hall on the eve of my recital: He said with outstretched arms [though hell should bat the way] that: “You have no business having a recital here – you are not ready!” That’s why Robert Sherman spent a whole have page in the New York Times with a very positive review of a very successful concert.
    I was never looking for ‘perfection’ – I was looking for a performance – a way to express myself at any cost – I always settled for near perfect and that is why I was always in demand and always singing. Beware the tyranny of the weak.

    • Well yours is the movie I want to see!

  10. when i watched the film,i somewhat connected to it on some levels because i am a little obsessed with perfection too and it takes its toll on me. your interpretation is just great and i would try to add some concepts of my own.

    the way i saw it was that nina’s concept of perfection is instilled to her core because of her mother.she wants her to be her perfect little girl who always listens to her and stays in the bubble consisting only the two of them so that nina can focus on her career and could do what her mother couldnt.and it seems highly probable that she was sexually abused by her mother at a young age due to which she fell mentally sick and used to scratch herself,and her mother stopped doing so so that she could focus on what she wants her to focus on.her mother is obsessed with her and its clear from that room which consisted so many distorted paintings of her.there was one scene where nina saw her mother crying and drawing,and she ran to take that rod so that she could prevent her from barging in,and in that scene nina was quite sane and her run into confusion did not begin yet,still she was scared and did that.its hinted in many other scenes that her mother abused her. and that actually explains a lot about why nina was so sexually inexpressive. nina also sees her inability to express her sexual desires as something pure,perfect,and this feeling has been inflicted upon her by her mother. at times when her other dual whom she suppresses seems to get to her in her hallucinations we hear her mockingly saying “sweet little girl”,as if its her failure to keep up to those words.the role of the black swan demanded her to let lose of herself,of her so long suppressed dark side, which is not perfection in her ideals. and as she tries to let go of her dark side in such pressure and short time,she sees the so long perfected herself crumbling.but because the performance demands of it she tries to get along,ultimately bringing her own demise.but still even in her demise she is happy and content as she dies doing what she was considered to do in perfection.to nina,her own life didnt even matter as long as she is perfect .

    its pretty clear nina mates with lily in her hallucinations,but whats important to notice is that she did so locking her mother out,and her mating with lily signified her willingness to succumb to her dark side which is necessary to achieve the required perfection she demands.its generally told that when we have sex with somebody in our dreams with whom we would rather not in our reality,it signifies that we aspire to have qualities of that person and that there are things we admire about them.gets along pretty well with nina and lily.what i couldnt fully understand was the beth stabbing scene and is greatly described by you.

    thank you very much for giving such a beautiful insight on the film.

  11. I just want to know if her mom was actually real.

  12. Great explanation! Finally the movie makes sense. Thank you

  13. I don’t think Lily ever existed. She was Ninas muse, what she envisioned the black swan to be, but her decent into paranoia and madness to be perfect makes it difficult for her to separate imagination from reality, almost like an imaginary friend a child might have. Nina is treated like a child by her mother. Lily is a rebellion against her mother and how she feels others see her. I absolutely love this movie and see something new and more disturbing with each viewing. Especially with Nina. A part of her is well aware she’s slipping but she lets it happen anyways.

  14. Was a great article with some good references

  15. Hi Chris,
    What do you think Thomas’s role was in the movie? Was it significant to the plot at all or was he just there as a love interest? Perhaps not even that; maybe just the person who caused her to ‘grow up’ in a way and lose her innocence. Also what was their relationship status? Did they have feelings for each other at all or was it all just lust?

    • Hey Gale! Broadly, Black Swan retells the ballet Swan Lake. So each character has an equivalent in the original ballet. To the point that at the end of Black Swan the credits show the movie character and ballet character. So Natalie Portman played “Nina Sayers/The Swan Queen.” And Barbara Hershey played Erica Sayers/The Queen. Thomas is, surprisingly, not The Prince, despite being, at times, the love interest. His counterpart is “The Gentleman.”

      But if you look at the Swan Lake cast there’s no character called The Gentleman. And if you google “Swan Lake The Gentleman” you get absolutely zero responses. So that’s weird. The obverious parallels would be The Prince or the evil wizard Rothbart. Or a combination of those two. I think Thomas definitely fooled around with his ballerinas, but also had that fucked up idea that he was trying to get Nina out of her shell. But his role in the movie is someone Nina needs to impress and win over. The judge. When the movie is about her performance in a role, you need someone to grade her performance and give her hurdles to overcome and drive the story forward. It’s no different than the power dynamic in Whiplash, if you’ve seen Whiplash. Or, weirdly, Good Will Hunting.

      Good Will Hunting is less dramatic, kind of. But the dynamic between Matt Damon and Robin Williams is kind of similar, narrative wise. As Williams is the judge on Matt Damon’s mental health. Damon starts changing his behavior based on the interactions he has with Williams and the expectations Williams sets. In this case, it’s uplifting. Where in Black Swan it’s more complicated and destructive.

      The love interest stuff is more a byproduct of Nina’s sexual repression. You could bring in a separate character to bring out that aspect of her. But you create more efficiency by having the judge kind of be that person. Ultimately, it’s Mila Kunis and that random guy that take it to the next level. Thomas just lights the spark.

      I guess all of that is a long way of saying, yes, the person who caused her to grow up lol. I think Nina probably had feelings for Thomas born out of her desire for approval and lack of a father figure? But she didn’t love him love him. And Thomas probably had feelings for Nina but he wouldn’t marry her, even if he did like her enough to coach her up and everything.

      • I have to say its a shame you didn’t dive into the toxic dynamic between Nina and Thomas in your original explanation. This drives her psychological distress equally to that of her mother. It’s really convenient that you’re a man and have avoided to mention the presence of a male abuser.

        • ” It’s really convenient that you’re a man and have avoided to mention the presence of a male abuser.” What the fuck. The guy writes a brilliant detailed response and you have to bitch about it.

  16. great analysis, chris! thank you so much

    • Glad you enjoyed it!

  17. Good review. Thanks. Makes a lot more things clear.

    I was wondering at one point how Nina suppressed her itch normally as part of being perfect. It most likely took energy not to itch and not going that route. And then Thomas tells her to let go. And letting go means itching more (even if only imagined/as a metaphor). Imagine you know that you are at the brink and in order to get further you just know that you need to go the extra step that will get you off the cliff. And then to choose this step willingly.

    But I think your review shows this already nicely.

  18. I’m surprised that I haven’t seen any comments reflecting what i thought was clear from early in the movie. The level of Nina’s mother’s obsession/insanity was more severe than the typical analysis relates. The duality symbolized by the Swans represents the conflict between Nina’s coming of age and Mother’s deception, hence Nina’s confusion. There were many signs – Nina was overly adverse to physical contact. Nina was attracted to Lily, not men. Lily’s comment that she wouldn’t have stayed over with Nina unless “you have a d**k”. The most obvious hint was early on when Nina was in a bathroom stall and flushed the toilet with a foot after urinating – – while standing facing the toilet – – ! Nina’s mother didn’t have a daughter, she had a son. That was not going to stop her from raising a “little princess” to fulfill her dream of being a ballerina. Nina’s solution to the internal conflict? Become the Swan Queen by removing the offending body part. Now she’s perfect.

    • Wow this is an intriguing idea for sure. I don’t agree with it 100%, but it is certainly plausible and I enjoy the angle. thanks!

    • Nina wasn’t standing to urinate, she had vomited in the toilet. She was bulimic to keep her weight down, as are many ballerinas.

  19. That was a nail file, not a “shoe knife”.

    • Your right SB, I don’t know why he thinks it was a “shoe knife” lmao

      • I would have sword it was the same thing she was using on her shoes earlier? Was it just a nail file the whole time?

  20. Great article. I loved what you said about Nina killing Beth as a means to kill the alternative of perfection. I’d offer up a take on your take to say Nina “kills” (whether it happens in reality or not) Beth as a means to eradicate what Beth earlier in the film told her awaits after she reaches perfection: nothing. What I mean to say is “perfection,”—the thing she’s been striving for her whole life—turns out to be nothing more than nothing. Which could explain her death in the end.

  21. Great article! I actually think she stabbed Beth. Most times in the movie, they show the hallucination and after this the reality. So in this case the hallucination would be Beth stabbing herself. The reality would then be Nina holding the bloody nail file and therefore her being the one who stabbed her. Otherwise it would be two contradictory hallucinations one after another.

    I also read on another article that Nina and Lily probably didn’t take drugs and got super drunk because otherwise the next day they would’ve been completely down. I’m not sure about it. What do you all think?

  22. Straight up

  23. Brad Pitt talks in the very first scene of Fight Club.

    • You’re right! I was thinking about it in chronological order. Technically that first scene is the end of the movie. So even though we hear him up front we don’t really “meet” the character until that 22 minute mark. I should have distinguished that better.

  24. Was nina really the only one standing in her own way? Nina’s mother Érica, a mediocre artist herself blames nina for her lack of potential and intentionally gaslights her because holds her daughter back maybe because of a mental Illness but I think she blames nina for her being a mediocre artist and she recognizes the creative genio is in her daughter rather than burger it she suppresses it. This women may love her daughter but she is a jealous tyrant.

    • Oh yeah, I think it’s fair to say Nina’s mother is the movie’s true villain. Which gets back to Perfect Blue. Damn. I never thought about that aspect of the connection between those films.

  25. Thank you so much for a fantastic and in depth review and break down! I’ve of course heard of black swan for literally 13 years now but never got around to it because I normally dislike Oscar hoopla. After watching real life prima ballerina, zakharova perform the dying swan, I read more about the story and performance. Then decided to just read about the movie to see what the plot was and found your article. Then 3 paragraphs in just decided to watch the movie and wow. I get the hoopla. It’s a beautifully complex, obsessed character driven story. And you broke it down so friggin well with important views from the director that explains so much of what happens. I don’t really even have questions I’m just in awe if this movie and how well you described everything so thank you!

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