Leading the race for the Oscars, Darren Aronofsky’s unnerving psychological thriller depicts the harrowing descent of innocent and fragile ballet dancer Nina Sayers, played by Natalie Portman, into a state of psychosis in her desperate quest to embody the seductive and destructive Black Swan perfectly.
“The only way to be perfect,” Arronofsky says in an article about Natalie Portman in the January edition of Vogue, ” is to allow chaos and madness to enter your life.” And ultimately, Portman’s character does achieve elusive perfection, but not without paying a heavy price.
Under great psychological pressure from herself, her controlling mother and her ballet director, and determined to the point of obsession to show that she has what it takes to play the sweet and beautiful White Swan’s evil twin in Tchaikowsky’s Swan Lake, Nina starts to unravel at the seams, her life and mind spinning dizzyingly out of control as she begins to penetrate the darker side of her personality.
A person who is suffering from an episode of psychosis experiences a loss of contact with reality that usually includes false beliefs about what is taking place or who one is (delusions) and seeing or hearing things that are not there (hallucinations). A psychotic event can be triggered by a number of factors including medical illnesses, sleep deprivation, severe stress or trauma, drug reactions and genetic predisposition.
“Natalie Portman’s character was involved in a highly stressful competition, she had conflicted relationships with her mother and her understudy, and she was the object of sexual advances by her director,” said Dr. Steve Lamberti, professor of psychiatry at University of Rochester Medical Center. “Any one of these issues alone would be stressful, but experiencing them all at once could be emotionally devastating, particularly for a young woman who is somewhat naive and sheltered.”
As Nina spirals into a state of deepened anxiety, she increasingly loses touch with reality. For instance, she develops a rash, and picking at the wound reveals several black swan feathers embedded in her skin, toys in her bedroom and her mother’s painting seem her come alive and mock her, and she conjures up fantasies and delusions, including a lesbian sex scene with her understudy.
“It was intense and disturbing and fascinating and mysterious,” Nadine Kaslow, vice-chair of the department of psychiatry of Emory University and psychologist to the Atlanta Ballet, said about Black Swan. “What was a hallucintion and what was real? When people are psychotic, it’s difficult, even as a therapist, to know what’s real and what’s not.”
These are some of the questions the viewer is left with at the end of the cinema experience. Is the understudy Lily, played by Mila Kunis, a projection of Nina’s shadow — her unconscious, repressed self — or does she truly exist? Or is she perhaps a a combination of the real and the imagined?
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Click here to read about bulimia and anorexia, which are extremely common in the competitive world of ballet.
Read here about actress Thandie Newton, who developed bulimia when she was 14 and training to be a ballerina.
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