The 2010 film Black Swan centers on the unhealthy psychology of Nina, the lead character. From the movie’s earliest scenes, it is clear that a number of serious issues are within Nina. On an overt level, she exists in a constant state of anxiety. Some of this is explained by her career with an important New York ballet company. Obviously, competition for lead roles is intense, just as a ballerina must always work daily to perform well. With Nina, however, this anxiety seems to dominate her entire existence. For example, she is obsessive about cutting her fingernails, which may represent her need to control and perfect every aspect of her being.
Then, in her interactions with others, she is consistently tense and fearful, as though she believes she may be attacked at any moment. While the film certainly deals with the pressures faced by a dancer, Nina’s constant and heightened state of anxiety, seen in everything she does, goes beyond any normal behaviors. Nina’s psychological issues are also certainly related to her relationship with her mother, Erica. A former ballerina herself, Erica places enormous pressure on Nina to succeed in her dancing, and attain the status of premier ballerina with the company. There is the strong suggestion that Erica resents having had a child, which led to the end of her career. The viewer cannot know to what degree this is true, or if Erica simply was not talented enough to have the life she desired. What matters, nonetheless, is that this is the reality she perceives and she seeks to “live through” her daughter. Nina is then greatly conflicted; she continually seeks to please her mother, but she also harbors intense resentment toward Erica. This is most powerfully revealed when, in a scene potentially only within Nina’s mind, the girl injures Erica’s hand by slamming a door on it.
Nothing in the film suggests that Nina is treated for her issues, as the story centers on her mania to perform the lead role in Swan Lake and meet the expectations of the director. Underscoring all of this, however, may be clinical schizophrenia, in terms of Nina’s becoming increasingly detached from reality. This is seen early in the film when, on the subway, she believes she sees herself as another passenger on the train. Then, as she works to develop her more passionate nature in order to play the black swan, she is convinced that she is in fact growing black feathers on her back, and she mutilates herself to remove them. Throughout the movie, it is never clear when action is occurring or when it exists only in Nina’s mind. Her hallucinations become increasingly graphic and violent; one involves her having sex with Lily, another dancer, but she learns that this did not occur at all. Later, while dancing the lead role, Nina enters into a fight with Lily and stabs her, just as Lily also “becomes” another Nina. None of this is real and Nina’s illness is now at its height. She is completely in a state of panic, and utterly unsure of what is real.
By the film’s conclusion, Nina seems to have triumphed in the role of the swan, just as she believes herself to have fully grown black feathers. She feels she has entered into the other persona of the black swan, or that it has taken over her being. When the performance is over, Nina is found by the company to be bleeding and it seems that she actually dies. She is, however, in a state of ecstasy at this moment because she believes she has achieved perfection in the ballet. This strongly reflects Freud’s death drive, in that death is desired as perfection in itself. While, again, Nina’s actual mental illnesses are never diagnosed as such in the movie, all of this very much indicates schizophrenia. Nina is constantly conflicted, as her hallucinations reveal, and increasingly divorced from reality.