Back Swan – the Narcissitic and BPD Dynamics Interpretation
It took me nearly a decade, but I finally understood the whole of the events presented during the plot of Black Swan and I am very proud to write this review. Keep in mind, however, that I am not a professional psychologist or personality disorders connoisseuse. I am merely offering you the way I got to understand what happened in the movie according to my limited recent studies about Narcissists and people who suffer from Bordeline Personality Disorder.
The movie begins with its main character, Nina, starred by Natalie Portman, having a dream of herself dancing the Prologue of the wordly known ballet The Swan Lake, the most desired role of all ballerinas. It is not, however, the usual presentation of it, immortalized by the Russian dancing company The Bolshoi – it is an atypical form of it, through a scene of seduction, transformation and pain. Nina then appears in bed with her eyes wide open, leaving a doubt as to what she foresaw was indeed a dream or a premonition of what’s about to take place.
We are introduced to Nina’s mother, Erika, played by Barbara Hershey. Erika is a Narcissist, and what’s even worse, a full blown one. She fits almost all criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder of MS-5 – Erika lacks empathy, has no respect for boundaries, is prone to micro managing, is physically and perhaps even sexually abusive towards Nina, treats her issue as mini-me, projects all her failures into the daughter, controls absolutely everything about Nina, from her schedule to the size of her nails. Erika undermines Nina many times, affirming she would not know how to dance without Erika’s help, refusing to beleive Nina would be able to make a great job as the Swan Queen and saying more than once the role is ‘too much for her’. Erika seems particularly upset that Nina is a more achieved dancer than herself and verbally blames the pregnancy for her lack of success, the lack of accountability for one’s shortcomings being another major key of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
On her way to the company by subway, Nina has an episode of what we may call a dissociation process. She becomes intrigued with a passenger dressed in black, using earplugs and a very similar hairstyle of her own. It seems like she is seeing her own face into someone else’s body. We will later know this very girl Nina was obsessing with in the morning is the new ballerina of the company, Lilly (represented by Mila Kunis). At the company, we are introduced to the director of the theather: Thomas, a French, eccentric and tough art manager (portraited by Vincent Cassel). He is very similar to Erika in his aggresive approach, lack of empathy, boundaries issues and sense of entitlement. A very important episode happens when we learn the prima ballerina of the theather, Beth McEntire (played by Wynona Ryder) is to be replaced by a ‘new face’, who will be given the oportunity of embodying the role Nina dreamed of: the Swan Queen. Clearly angry and dissatisfied with her dismissal, Beth wrecks her stage room and leaves in a stormy manner, frightening Nina, who takes the chance to enter her room and steal a red lipstick. Later, on the audition for the role of Swan Queen, Nina is startled by the sudden entrance of Lilly, being unable to finish the piece of the Black Swan, a very complicated one for her, since she is obsessed with control and mastering perfectly symmetrical movements, while the Black Swan requires more spontaneity and unpredictibility. Again, on her way home, Nina has another dissociation seeing her face on the girl who passes by her walking in the opposite direction. It seems like Nina is daydreaming about the person she could be without her mother’s heavy influence on her looks, choices and career. The longing, confusion and sadness in Nina’s eyes are painful to witness. She seems to be lost in a world full of possibilities while she has to stay in a path choosen for her out of her own inclinations.
At home, Erika ‘comforts’ Nina for apparently failing in the audition, offering her back handed compliments and suggesting Nina would fit a supportive role more accordingly to her (lack of) skills, the Big Swan. She plays Swan Lake Suite n.2 at the music box close to Nina’s bed and leaves. Erika is a passive aggresive scheming Narcissist who cannot stand the youth, beauty and success of her daughter. Growing up in an environment deprived of unconditional love, affection linked to achievments and expected to become a mirror (in minor scale) of her mother, Nina has developed a conflicted sense of self, unstable mood and troubled sense of validation. It is also implied Nina has eating disorders (she is seen throwing up when nervous and is called for losing much weight) and inflicts self harm scratching her back until it bleeds. These are traits commonly linked to Bordeline Personality Disorder.
The next day, Nina begins the transformation into the Black Swan. On her way to work, still on the subway (interestingly, she chooses not to do it under her mother’s watch) she uses the red lipstick stolen from Beth’s room, allows her hair to fall loosely (unlike the ballerina bun she usually goes by) and walks to Thomas’ office to ask for the part. With his poor sense of boundaries and huge entitlement, Thomas kisses her forcefully and is repelled by a bite the black swan metaphorically performs – since Nina is fragile, chaste and more prone to endure in silence any level of abuse, we can only attribute this sudden fight back impulse to the character she is starting to incorporate.
Nina is given the role of the Swan Queen, much to Erika’s dismay and envy of ballerina colleagues. “My daughter, the Swan Queen!” cries a supposedly delighted Erika, with a glimpse of contempt in her cold stare. Notice the careful choice of words – “My (possessive) daughter (how is she related to me), the Swan Queen (not an achievement, not a congratulation, not even a compliment, the mere statement of a role)!”.
Unfortunately for Nina, she will be torn between the manipulations and abuse of two narcissists – one pushing her towards vulnerability, meakness, childish behaviour and other to strenght, sensuality, agressiveness, lust. Nina’s already split pernonality will be torn between these two conflicted handlers and, unable to keep the pace, she will pay the ultimate price to achieve the external validation she desires. It is a very powerful, raw and thrilling masterpiece. Highly recommended.