The psychoanalytic method of criticism, based on the writings of Freud and his followers, can be used to analyse a film on several different levels. One can apply the analysis to the creator (typically the director), characters in the film, the audience, or to the structure of the film itself (e.g. editing and cinematography). In all cases, the psychoanalytic approach attempts to unmask the hidden, unconscious motives or meanings of its subject. In the following, I will examine some aspects of Darren Aronofsky’s film Black Swan using this approach. I believe it sheds light on the meaning or purpose of many elements of the film, particularly its characters.
Black Swan is particularly ripe for a psychoanalytic treatment. This story of a girl competing for the leading role in a world-class ballet company is rich with psychological dysfunction: dissociative disorder, obsessive-compulsive behavior, anorexia nervosa, narcissistic personality disorder, self-mutilation, kleptomania, fetishism, hallucinations, depression, anxiety. These are all easily diagnosed by the audience perhaps, but we need a critical approach to explain their causes and meanings in the context of the film.
The story of Swan Lake itself has many Freudian undertones. The character Thomas explains the plot: “A virgin girl, dropped in the body of a swan. She desires freedom, but only true love can break the spell. Her wish is nearly granted in the form of a prince. But before he can declare his love, the lustful twin, the black swan, tricks and seduces him. Devastated, the white swan leaps off a cliff, killing herself; and in death finds freedom.” Here, we have sibling rivalry, fantasizing, and the conflict between Eros and Thanatos – the life drive and the death drive – all important psychoanalytical concepts. The plotting of the film closely follows the Swan Lake story; the two mirror each other and provide a rich source of symbolism. The mirror itself is an important symbol in this film, appearing over and over.
Decoding symbols is an important part of psychoanalysis. Through its application, objects or thoughts can be seen to represent other objects or thoughts and reveal the underlying meaning or motive in a person’s behavior – motives they might be unconsciously repressing. In Black Swan, Nina is repeatedly seen in mirrors, both by her character and the audience. Placing her side by side with this reverse representation of herself seems to symbolise her dual nature, and how, over the course of the film, the two sides of her personality come into conflict. Color symbolism is also evident in the film: some characters always wear black, some white, and some both. In the latter case, we have Thomas, who, while encouraging Nina to embrace and balance both the light and dark sides of herself, is usually dressed in black and white – even his apartment is decorated entirely in black and white. Thomas represents is an intermediary in Nina’s struggle with her own dual nature.
It is no coincidence that the film opens with a dream sequence. In it, we are introduced to the two most powerful symbols in the story: the white swan and the black swan. These can be seen to represent the ego and the id, two of the most significant elements in Freud’s model of the psyche (see “Ego and the Id”). The ego, like the white swan, is delicate and tightly controlled; the id, the black swan, is wild and passionate, indulging and reveling in its instinctive desires. During her first audition, Thomas tells Nina to show him the black swan, saying “not so controlled, seduce us … attack it,” and later that she needs to “lose herself.” Over the course of the film, Nina tries to channel her id, her dark side, which she can see in the mirror, but must dig deep into her psyche — into buried, destructive impulses – to reach.
Beyond the sibling rivalry between the white and black swans, there is a more obvious representation of the Oedipus complex in the film, involving Thomas, Nina, Lily, and Nina’s mother. The two dancers fight for the affection of Thomas, who is a father figure, but one with whom they also want to be physically intimate. As Nina’s relationship with her mother deteriorates, she has a desire to lash out and kill her. This is a feminine version of Freud’s classic “Oedipus complex” (“Interpretation of Dreams” 222), in which a son wants to kill his father and have sex with his mother.
The mother is a powerful character in Black Swan, just as she is a central figure in Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. She tries to maintain tight control over Nina, and while initially appears to be tender and caring, she later reveals a dark side. Her almost pathological desire to control her daughter and ensure her success appears to be evidence of Freud’s theory of transferral, wherein a person transfers certain dangerous thoughts or feelings from themselves to someone else. In this case, Nina’s mother, who was pursuing a career as a dancer in her youth transfers her own ambitions onto her child and tries to ensure that Nina does not make the same mistakes she did.
Black Swan is an excellent subject for psychoanalytic interpretation. The film contains dream/hallucinatory sequences, many symbolic elements, a battle between the id and the ego in the protagonist’s psyche, the Oedipus complex, and many other scenarios that can be explained with key concepts in classic psychoanalytic thought. It seems likely that Aronofsky was thinking in terms of Freudian psychic conflict when making the film, using many symbols and sequences that point to his main character’s dual nature and her repression of frightening unconscious drives. A proper understanding of the film requires delving into some of these psychological conflicts and symbols.
- Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. A. A. Brill. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1923.
- —. The Ego and the Id. Trans. Joan Riviere. New York: Norton, 1962.