Tuesday, February 28, 2012

My Favorite Female Movie Characters: Nina Sayers (Black Swan)

   For Nina Sayers, perfection is not an ideal: it is the only acceptable option. She doesn't strive for it the way most people do; most people would like to be the best at what they do, but accept that perfection isn't attainable 99% of the time. Nina, however, doesn't feel that way.
    Nina Sayers is a ballerina in a prestigious company. The director, Darren Aronofsky, takes no great pains to make the world of ballet seem glamorous. It is a world of high stakes, taxing physical pain, and extremely high expectations. In the film, toes crack a little too hard against the floor, ankles with deep veins seem a bit too tight, and emaciated frames seem to stretched, too otherworldly to be healthy. This is not a world of pink tutus and make believe, but backbreaking, difficult, highly competitive work.
     Aside from the physically draining aspects of her job, which Nina seems to genuinely love, there are the mentally painful parts. Nina is naturally shy, timid, and over-sheltered. She has lived with her mother, with whom she has an eerily co-dependent relationship. Even thought Nina must be at least 24 or 25 years old, her mother still insists on helping her undress every night. Her mother gave up her own career to give birth to Nina, and never seems to have gotten over the loss. She sits in her room and paints self portraits of herself in her younger days and cries, and when she isn't doing this, she is barging into Nina's room, forcing herself into aspects of Nina's life and career, and depriving her of any privacy.  They live in a tiny, claustrophobic apartment stuffed full of memories of Nina's childhood. There is no mark of evidence that this home is inhabited by a forty-something year old woman and her adult child. 
     Because of her upbringing, Nina is timid, quiet, anxious, and highly critical of herself, qualities that are only exacerbated by her work. Her ballet instructor is by turns sexually abusive and neglectful. He approves of her technical skill but harasses her daily about not 'losing herself' in her work and 'letting go and just feeling it.' For over analytical Nina, this is an impossible demand. She has no idea how to go about it, and when he offers her the coveted role of the Swan Queen, which requires a softer, more timid persona as well as a lustful, bold one, Nina is unable to please her director with her interpretation of the evil twin, the Black Swan. This constant criticism, self doubt, and the extraordinary pressure pushed on her from one hundred directions ekes into her already fragile mind, and Nina begins to crack.
     There has been much discussion over exactly what Nina's diagnosis is, because the film goes through no great pains to tell us. As the pressure mounts on her, Nina resumes an old habit of self injury, scratching herself at night. She constantly picks at her skin and pulls at her cuticles until they bleed, and in her quest for perfection, seems to have an eating disorder. As her mind dissolves, she begins to hallucinate. She frequently sees violent and terrifying scenes which are not there, such as the prima ballerina stabbing herself in the face with a nail file or a horrifing monster roaming around the ballet studio. Throughout the film, it is difficult to determine what is real and what isn't, just as it is for Nina.
      One of her main sources of anxiety is Lily, a fellow dancer who has all the passion and abandon that Nina lacks. Nina becomes increasingly paranoid that Lily is after her, that she will do anything to take her spot as the Swan Queen, and her paranoid delusions begin to run her life. Some say that Lily was never a real person to begin with and that Nina's sick mind invented her, but I don't believe that's true. I think Lily is a real person who is genuinely nice, but also very talented, and Nina perceives this threat to be the worst.
       Much has been made of the infamous lesbian scene between Lily and Nina and whether or not Nina's repressed homosexuality had anything to do with her mental breakdown. I definitely think that the repressed home environment has lead to a great lack of sexual awareness or sexual maturity in Nina, as is evidenced in other parts of the film, but I don't believe she was in love with Lily. I believe the fantasy about sex with Lily was more of her weak mind trying to become something it isn't. Nina is not passionate and bold and lively, as Lily is, but she desperately wants to be, and so, as she slowly loses herself and her sanity to a role which demands more sexuality from her than she's ever experienced, her brain translated this pressure into a lesbian fantasy. However, as with many things in the film, this is entirely my interpretation and others view it differently.
       Many psychologists have praised the film's portrayal of someone's first psychotic break, and say that it is the most accurate movie as far as the person's feelings and mental capacity they've seen. However, they seem to agree that Nina has no set diagnosis. Many say it is impossible for Nina to have all the characteristics she has in the film, such as hallucinating so vividly that she harms herself, as well as an eating disorder and a history of abuse and a smothering household, and also be as high-functioning as she is. So the film gets no points for accuracy as far as a certain diagnosis. However, I find this to be one of the film's better traits. We have no idea what is happening to her, just as she doesn't. Nina is losing her mind, and it is frightening and sad, and that's all we know. That is all she knows. We are privy to someone who is dying of a mind that cannot take anymore, and that is a great tragedy, just as this is a great, compelling film. If you haven't experienced 'Black Swan,' make a point to: it is one of the great tragic films of our time.

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