william steig drawing

January 3, 2011
Kartina Richardson

Black Swan And Bathrooms

Sitting in a coffee shop I heard a man say:

“I saw Black Swan the other night. It was trash. Elevated trash, but trash.”

When you see a good movie, a very good movie, it’s difficult to remember that the film is not objectively extraordinary.

“Black Swan was great.”

You say to yourself and aloud.

You are certain the world agrees. Summer is hot, winter is cold, and Black Swan is a great film. Now this isn’t exactly evidence you are feeling superior. Superiority means knowing there exists another lesser point of view over which yours rises supreme. If you cannot even fathom an opposing view it is beyond arrogance. It is pure solipsism.

So, if you are sitting in a coffee shop and you hear a man say:

“I mean it was just awful. Natalie Portman was sweating beads, and blood and just really straining for an Oscar.  I don’t like it when actors strain. When you have to strain to do it, when it’s not natural, it’s just fake to me.”

The world will crack in two.

Of course this thinking reveals that I am often deep in my own world with its own rules and definitions for things.

Which brings us neatly to the issue of Nina and her many identities, a split shown most clearly in the bathroom: the Western world’s last vestige of privacy in an increasingly transparent society.

For those of us not living or working in solitude, the bathroom offers the sole moments in our day when we may escape the gaze of others.

For Nina, trapped under the eyes of her mother and fellow ballerinas, bathroom moments are essential. She has grown to adulthood without ever having true privacy. It is only when Nina is given a private dressing room, the first room in her life that is truly respected as hers, that her rival identity emerges. This is the darker Nina that then bars her bathroom and bedroom door. This is the Nina that emerges only when given solitude.

When Nina does not have her dressing room, she has the bathroom.

If we aren’t in an emotional crisis, these few minutes aren’t usually regarded as significant, but any time spent away from other eyes, even seconds, is important. These moments demonstrate to us not only the rapidity with which we can switch modes but the sharp differences between our various public personas and our many private selves.

Think of all the odd things you’ve done in a bathroom in your lifetime. What child hasn’t secretly explored the substance of their waste. What pre-teen hasn’t masturbated nervously. What person hasn’t escaped to the bathroom during a business meeting and made a weird face in the mirror to say to the world: “You don’t know I’m doing this right now. Oh there’s so much you don’t know.”

No other moment can so clearly reveal that our public life is all, in fact, an act. An act with a purpose, but an act all the same.

Solitude welcomes a self or selves that does not, cannot, appear when in the company of others. Private selves refuse to manifest in public because other personas are at the front lines. Like mother Elephants circling their calves, our public selves form ranks. Each is a layer of armor, tweaking our interactions in the unconscious name of self defense.

When we enter the bathroom, as we are closing the door, there is a moment of transition. Our public selves are silenced, and our private selves have yet to appear. For half an instance all is still.

…until the private selves say hello.

And they can be quite dark.

They may write WHORE across the bathroom mirror, or peel a line of skin up your finger.

For this reason, solitude is not always an escape.  And for some of us, most of us I contend, there are enough private selves that solitude is not always solitary at all.

Inner selves are another circle of mother Elephants, protecting the center, with new and more devious defense weaponry. One may make us pick at our skin, cut, burn, or drink till the cows come home. This is all “self-destructive behavior” but the purpose of all self destructive behavior is to protect from pain, to offer a moment of escape.  This particular self’s destructive actions distress another self, one that can see the unhealthyness of the behavior, and life-long SSRI prescriptions are born.

You aren’t a single entity, but a household. One with all the politics, drama, violence, or delicacies of interaction of a family.

Just as there are different public personas there are many private ones. Freud said there are three. I say there are four or five. Loosely speaking these are:

1. The Imp: The self that enjoys causing problems. It sabotages all your efforts towards happiness. Gaining pleasure from the bullshit it heaps upon your other selves.

2. The Baby: The self that is encumbered by and stressed under the problems the Imp has created.

3. The Housekeeper: The one that watches it all. It comforts the baby, scolds the imp, tries its hardest to get the center to come out of its room and take control and drives everyone to gymnastics class. The Housekeeper is who we usually spend most of our alone time with.

4. The Center: The strong and transcendent self that sits behind all the squabbling and smiles because problems aren’t problems and nothing matters (in a good way). This is the self all others are protecting. It is deep, deep, way the fuck deep down.

In some form and to varying degrees, these are the folks you are with when you are “alone”.

Depending on how powerful and cunning your personas are, things can get dangerous.

Nina’s got one devious Imp. A strong persona that only manifests in private. Though shades of it appear here and there (stealing from Beth etc), it avoids revealing itself outside of the bathroom or dressing room. The pointed exception to this is Nina’s drug night, when ecstasy lowers all the gates and lets her Imp run free and unchecked (and is the only time outside of a bathroom that her hair is literally down). This persona gradually gains power in public and private moments as the stresses of the ballet force Nina to use and so acknowledge her darker energies. Lily (Mila Kunis) is only painted black. Nina is black through and through and through. By denying her shadow, Nina adds layers to it. When you hold something down that’s pushing to come up, it gains momentum. If you hold your dark Imp down, it will gouge a hole in your White Swan’s stomach and call the show its own.

There is one particular bathroom moment where Nina’s Imp and Housekeeper do battle*, almost literally. Realizing that she’s been scratching, Nina’s Housekeeper frantically clips her nails. As she does, the camera moves to the right. At the same moment, partially camouflaged by camera movement, Portman’s expression changes abruptly: her frantic face is momentarily calm and deeply mischievous. The Imp sabotages and the Housekeeper cleans up the mess.

The origins of Nina’s war of identities aren’t clear, and this is the movie’s greatest strength: it doesn’t explain what doesn’t need to be. I don’t want to know if she’s actually schizophrenic or in fact a strange magic being that really does grow feathers. Why does Nina scratch? When did it start? Where is her dad? How old is she? Her relationship with her mother is clearly perverse, but one we can’t exactly finger. A sexual element is hinted at, oppression is shown, but nothing is explained. A history of some kind of trauma is established, but the exact cause doesn’t matter. The edges are blurry. This is familiar in avant garde film, but in mainstream cinema that usually assumes the audience is dumber than it is, it’s a rarity.  In Black Swan, scenes aren’t spent establishing relationship back story any longer than necessary. Time isn’t wasted justifying actions. Any more facts would wrench the film out of the realm of the surreal in which it belongs. When direction is good, a glance from one character to another, or from one character’s persona to its rival self, is all it takes to know the deal.

In Nina’s case the deal is bloody. Powerful and irreparably broken identities have to destroy each other in order for the center to find peace.

Alas, poor Nina! I knew her.

*This battle is shown throughout the film through the use of Mirrors. Aronofsky creates subtle but effective unease by manipulating Nina’s reflection (Nina turns her heard as does her reflection, only half a second after).

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  1. Wow.

    Not a review. An insight, if there is such a category as that. Unique.

    It reminds me of a book phase that I went through years ago where I read a lot of multiple-personality books like “The Minds of Billy Milligan”, etc. They weren’t just personalities, they were roles – as you eloquently describe them.

    I’m reading into this, but you write as if this is a common experience of women. I think less so of men. We’re compartmentalized, but not scizophrenically so. Just a first thought.

    Beautifully written.

  2. This is such a wonderfully written review. It’s been at least a half century since I considered myself a young person, but I’m sure the Dragons in all of our lives manifest themselves in ways not too dissimilar to Nina’s. I’m actually looking forward to re-reading and re-thinking about this review and the film. For me there is nothing more pleasurable than reading something that stimulates thoughtful self-examination. Thank you.

  3. I hated this film until I read your review. Perhaps it was your insight and interpretation that gave the film depth as opposed to Aronofsky’s skill. While I credit him with an incredible visual filmmaking skill, I believe it was your creativity within the analysis that truly shone light on the worth of the movie itself.

  4. Fantastic essay! Great insights into the film.

  5. I love Black Swan, it’s one of those movies that can have so many different interpretations, and they’ll never become boring.

    But I didn’t catch any sexual angle between the mother and Nina. Where did you?

  6. Wonderful review!

  7. I am in awe of this. Thank you for the interpretation I could not put into words.

  8. What a great review!
    I guess there’s a path of seeking balance in Black Swan. Nina has her personas fighting each other, but having such a powerful White Swan could only mean that she also had a powerful Black Swan. The problem, as you pointed out, is that Nina pushed down her inner dark side so hard that it could only push back, taking out on her ‘clearer’ personas.
    She was so strong but, at the same time, so fragile.

    The movie, nevertheless, is incredible.

    Claps on the discussion you brought up. Awesome.

  9. This is really something else, I absolutely agree.

  10. Absolutely.

    You have hit the nail on the head with this insightful reflection.

    Me and my fiance were moved just as much as you were with this wonderfully dark and disturbing film…

    I’d say it were close to perfection – in what it sought out to be.

    I have linked you across my facebook, in hope that others will read this!

    Great job!

    Check out my site if you have time.

    Thank you!

  11. O man, this is a great review. Thanks so much, it all becomes clear(er)!

  12. I figure there are going to be a lot of simple-minded people who don’t understand the complexity of this film and prefer to see a movies where the meaning is laid out and they don’t have to use their very under used imaginations to really truly immerse themselves in Aronosky’s vision. But anyone who doesn’t appreciate the lengths Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis went through to portray these characters is just an old grump who probably thinks they are somekind of amature film critic and hates everything to in order to seem better than everyone else, this film isn’t done for them, but for those of us that appreciate the real art of film making. This movie is a gift plain and simple, for true film lovers.

  13. (In the bathroom reading and responding to review)

    I usually am a sucker for the audio swells in cheesy horror films and I flinch every chance I am surprised. I slant my direction to the chair in front of me, I am afraid of getting scared. I could not look away from this movie, no matter how fast my heart was racing. The movie ends and I am in awe of what just took place in the theater. I am snapped back into this world when I hear some guy in the front row let everyone know that Black Swan was the worst film he had ever seen. I look to my right and ask my wife “were we not watching the same film?” I never understood why audiences need the end to explain it all to them. They forget the ride they embarked upon when they responded to several aspects of films in general. I don’t think you are suppose to like tragedies, the hero’s hubris is often their downfall. Nina is asked to be white and black, everything and nothing, good and evil, right and wrong(left). Until reading this I thought I was crazy, but alas I am only different.

    (T. Hanks)

  14. I thought your review was so well written! I’ve seen the film twice and both times I have come out feeling as though I discovered something new. Your essay made me see the film a completely different light, so thank you. I also enjoyed the Hamlet reference.

  15. Some films I love while I’m seeing them, and the more I think about them afterward the worse they get (Avatar, I’m lookin’ at you).

    Black Swan was the opposite. I struggled and even got turned off while watching it, but the more I think about it now, the more I admire it. Your review captures some of the depth of a wonderful film. Thanks!

  16. Randy Masters

    Coming back to comment, now that I’ve seen the film.

    Saw a double-feature last night of Black Swan and Country Strong. Seeing them back-to-back, it seemed to me that they had the same theme: emotional pain of a strong self-destructive female lead trying to meet everyone’s performance expectations, with the same results. Maybe that’s just me.

    Bottom line, your review was much more interesting than the film itself was.

  17. Katrina, beautifully written. I was in awe the first time I saw it, more so the second and and even more after reading this. One question, what FIRST went through your mind when the gentleman in the coffee shop and his description of the movie as “trash”???

  18. what amazing insight into this film, which, by the way, I thought amazing. Thank you for your interpretation, I see things through your eyes in a way I myself may never been able to. Thank you!

  19. Randy Masters

    I enjoyed your piece on Ebert Presents. Nicely done! Again, a very unique take on the film.

  20. I saw your review on the PBS show which I was briefly passing through – I don’t really care for the new people – and then I saw your piece on Black Swan. Haven’t seen the movie and hadn’t intended to, but I think I will now. I was very happy with the refreshing intelligence in your review, especially as it communicated on the program. I came to the website because I couldn’t remember one of the selves (the Baby) and wanted to recall it. Am now curious what the fifth is. Perhaps you could work that in as a wrap-around for a closing, or nearly. Healthiness, or with a ‘y’? Very nice job. I hope they replace one of the others with you; you really did a good review and I think I would watch the show regularly if they did. Well… perhaps when we see Nina next she won’t be such a grave girl. Always nice to hear from Yorick.

  21. Really glad you too picked up on the incestuous nature between the mother and daughter in this film. The fraught, tense, nature of their relationship subtlety hinted at the more perverse underpinnings of their bond. The band of the hand.

  22. Interesting take on the film. While I didn’t think it was among the best films I’ve ever seen, I wouldn’t call it one of the worst, either. I thought it was an intriguing mixture of high and low art, with an underlying sense of horror mixed with humor. Your review has made me want to see it again.

  23. Love your review but still think the film was a pretentious vacuum.

  24. BLACK SWAN is nearly perfect. When I say “nearly”, I don’t mean to suggest that the movie has flaws. But, rather, I’m suggesting that the film’s abrupt tone shift might have been handled better.

    Prior to the ‘dreamscape’ sequences in the bedroom, bathroom, and dressing room, BLACK SWAN was a brooding, achingly eloquent reverie. (It goes down much easier than Aronofsky’s brutal, visionary REQUIEM FOR A DREAM). It was exciting to watch Portman’s anguish and repressed passion (or sexual frustration, perhaps) battle to break out from behind her demure facade. Was the haughty dance instructor going to be able to free her from her psycho-sexual prison; was he meant to try? Will the rapture of performance facilitate Portman’s catharsis; does she believe it could? These questions (and, indeed, several others) imprisoned me; I don’t think I’ve been this caught up in a movie since THE DARK KNIGHT.

    In the second half of BLACK SWAN, the mood (and tone) became noticeably frightening; the malevolence…almost palpable. It evoked the kind of dread usually reserved for women-in-jeopardy splatter films (or, at least, a diluted version of them). As a result, what started out as a poignant, frantic tone-poem about frustration (of various kinds) and longing, finally became a harrowing, illusory tale of one woman’s triumph over her demons. Both passages were fascinating. I simply found the transition from the former to the latter at bit jarring.

  25. brittneyneva

    Great review. I just watched the film for the first time, and I loved it. It has been too long since I challenged my mind with film. Thank you for sharing your brilliant insight and confirming some of the crazy interpretations I developed while watching the film myself.

  26. I thought this was fantastically written. I really loved this movie.
    However, I was watching it last night and I think I recall Nina’s hair
    down during one of her practices. I took it as her trying to mimic
    Lilly. Let me know if I’m wrong!
    At any rate, good job,

  27. Interesting take. I like the insights and writing. Very well done.

    I took the movie more as a love letter to method acting, a woman who is so in control (even when going out of control) that everything she puts herself in either consciously or not she is doing as research for her role. A lot of people bring up her ‘insanity’ or ‘mental disorders’ but I don’t see the character like that, I see her as someone devoted so passionately to the perfection of her craft she turns in the best performance she can.

    But as you say, the movie (despite not being very subtle) does not explain things when it does not need to, so we can both be right! Yay movies!


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