Thursday, February 10, 2011

Oscar Countdown: Black Swan

Khan (1973) writes that “the unique achievement of Freud is that he invented and established a therapeutic space and distance for the patient and the analyst. In this space and distance the relating becomes feasible only through the capacity in each to sustain illusion and to work with it.” For moviegoers, the screen becomes the transitional space as we struggle, in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, to sustain contact with the fragmenting world of ingénue prima ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) whose tenuous hold on reality simultaneously confuses and enthralls the audience. Khan states “The vehicle of this working with illusion is symbolic discourse,” but the symbolism moviegoers embrace is the visual image. Just as the ‘good enough’ therapist (or mom) opens and sustains the transitional space by never asking ‘what is created and what exists in external reality’ (Winnicott), likewise, when watching Black Swan, we do not ask what is real and what is hallucination.

Aronofksy uses Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, a fairy tale of transformation in which the princess Odette is turned into a bird by an evil magician who tries to marry his daughter Odile, in Odette’s stead, to the prince Siegfried. Odette is released from her bird form only by love or by death. In the film Black Swan, it is the choreographer Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) who wants Nina (who is perfect to dance the virtuous White Swan) to transform herself so that she can likewise become a perfect Black Swan.

More than just a battle of good and evil, this film of the doppelganger White/Black Swan speaks to the multiple selves that make up each of us. In his review of Black Swan Roger Ebert writes “It is one thing to lose yourself in your art. Portman’s ballerina loses her mind.”

Our inability to “stand in the spaces” between multiple self states, to balance each and privilege rigidly none, is, according to Bromberg, what leads to pathology. If one dissociates parts of one’s self such that these parts become unrecognizable to the self, then these disavowed parts of the self become ‘not-me,’ and are unusable to enrich and create experience. When Nina looks in the mirror, whose reflection appears is sometimes foreign to Nina as she seeks to dance both the white and black swans perfectly. Aronofsky and, especially, Portman dedicate themselves to the grueling and unnatural demands of ballet, which transcends the normal human body into twisted perfection.

In this performance, Portman outpaces all the competition for Best Actress. Like a trembling rabbit with hawks circling overhead, Portman’s exquisite and unrelenting expressions of confusion and fear draw us in to her fragmenting sense of self. For Nina there are many dangers, from her ominously impinging mother (well played by Barbara Hershey), from her sexy, alternate rival (Mila Kunis), and from within.

While I would not choose Black Swan for Best Picture, it is, in my view, a close contender, and I was glad for Aronofsky, particularly since The Wrestler (2008) was, I think, wrongly overlooked in the nominations for Best Picture.

Khan, M.M. (1973). The Role of Illusion in the Analytic Space and Process. Ann. Psychoanal., 1:231-246.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I’m doing a piece of uni work on this film and this is by far the best review I’ve read in terms of analysis and the way it was written. Fair play.