The Return of the Black Swan: the Duality of the Ego
The nature of our identity is deeply unknowable. According to Lacan's theory, identity is self-delusional and based on a false premise. The fictional identity in individual is both socially constructed and formed though what Lacan calls the “mirror stage”. While on a larger scale, it is based upon our concepts of normality, the dominant social norms. Horror film examines the boundary and relationship between normality and monstrosity, in other words, what it means to be human. As Robin Wood argues in The American Nightmare, there is a simple and obvious basic formula for horror film: normality is threatened by the Monster. The monsters in those films endanger human identity in one way or other.
Wood also suggests that the monstrous others in horror films is a representation of what socially oppressed and psychologically repressed. He refers to Freudian “return of the repressed,” where “what is repressed must always strive to return.” and claim this repression is embodied in the figure of the monster. Most prominent of all is the repression of sexuality. He listed four kinds of repression in specific, including sexual energy itself, bisexuality as a natural heritage, the particularly severe repression of female sexuality/creativity, and the sexuality of children.
Black Swan, a 2010 psychological horror film, embodies the concept of surplus repression and paranoid ego, and makes it a narrative force throughout the story.
The film follows the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), an extremely painstaking and captious young ballerina in a New York City ballet company. She lives with her controlling mother, who was formerly also a ballerina, but later had no choice but to give up her career due to the pregnancy. She zealously supports Nina with her professional ambition, and educates her to be chaste. Nina is later chosen as the new swan queen by the artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) for the opening production of their new season, Swan Lake. She is required to play both the virtuous white swan, and her guileful, evil twin the black swan. Her fragile, docile and virginal personality is perfect for the white swan. However, the performance for the black swan is a major challenge for her, as she is way too reserved and controlling for the character. At the meantime, a new arrived dancer Lily, although imprecise in her skill, better embodies the qualities of the black swan. As the opening day draws near, Nina is getting more overwhelmed and pressured, and some unusual thing is happening on her. In the end, we learned all the abnormal occurrence is due to her own paranoia.
The new adaption of the Swan Lake, working as a narrative function in the film, is also a metaphor to it, foreshadowing Nina’s split and death. The white swan aligned with the old, normal Nina. The black swan, the monstrous other, seemingly aligned with Lily at first, is in fact the other side of Nina herself, her split identity, her repressed sensuality.
In the film, the troubled identity is transformed on-screen into a spectacle through the device of doppelganger. The uncanny visibility of the double indicates social fears circling fragile identity and loss of psychical control. The unsettling factor lies in both the similarity and the difference. As Andrew J. Webber argues, “the doppelganger is above all a figure of visual compulsion”. Both familiarity and strangeness together threatens the subject’s identity even more than strangeness itself. Here, I need to introduce the psychoanalytic concept of “ego”, and its constructing stage: the “mirror phase (or stage)”, for it is central to the creation of doppelganger.
Ego, as we usually perceived is something related to how we see ourselves, and also how we wish to be experienced by others. “The ego mediates between the id, superego and external reality.” “It seeks to please the id’s drive as well as the superego's moral demands, in realistic ways that will benefit in the long term rather than bringing grief.” According to Freud’s theory, there are two different kinds of egos, “realist ego” and “narcissistic ego”. The realist ego is in control, while the narcissistic ego loses touch with reality and autonomy. It is “not the unified subject but is divided.” (Grosz 1990: 289) In Lacan’s theory, the “mirror stage” is the point of the origin of the ego. It refers to when the child identifies with the reflective image when looking into the mirror. The sense of self emerges as he or she perceive “it” as a unified “whole”, though it is a contrast to the actual experience of the body. Ego is then “born out of the desire to be in control of one’s body,” but it is always constructed paranoid because it is based on the identification with an image outside the self. The fictional unity and wholeness of the ego will be continuously threatened by the images of “fragmented body”, like castration, mutilation, dismemberment, dislocation, evisceration, devouring, bursting open of the body and etc.
Both Freud and Lacan agree on that the narcissistic ego “takes up itself, or part of itself, as love object or libidinal object.” The libido is projected towards the self, or inwards to the ego. Just like the Greek mythology of Narcissus, there is an erotic relation between the person and the image, yet he/she can never truly possess what he/she desires. “Mirror phase” creates a gap between the self and the other (the mirror image), and brings a lack of what is desired in the other. “The other can be considered as a reflection of the ego as well as the locus of desire, two key points emerge: the subject is undeniably split through the creation of the ego as a delusional sense of self, and the subject is therefore continually bound by desire. Identity, according to Lacan, is inseparable from delusion and desire.” (Caroline Ruddle 2013: 52)
The film Black Swan centers on a split and narcissistic protagonist, Nina, who sets herself up as an erotic object. It examines the alienation and paranoia of the ego, as well as the erotic and aggressive tensions between subject and ego. Due to the nature of her job as a ballerina, she is obsessed with controlling her own body. From the very beginning, the film invites us to spectate at Nina’s body movements, notably how precise and standard they are. Following is the close-ups featuring the details of how she stretches every morning, also later before the rehearsals. However, her obsession with control and perfection is extreme which is suggested through her bulimic actions. It is worth noting that Nina’s definition of perfection is intertwined with other characters’ opinions about female perfection. As she becomes the new swan queen, the inability of relaxing and letting go instead becomes the major obstacle. Her dance instructor tells her to relax, and Thomas said to her that “perfection is not just about control. It's also about letting go.” The standard of “perfection” is thus changed, the abjection of the mother and the past takes places, and the repressed desires starts to return.
However, growing up under the care of her over-excessive mother, she has experienced severe repression of her fundamental sexual energy and bisexuality, and rooted deeply in the idea of dichotomy of angle and devil. For this reason, the return of the repressed is unfortunately always experiences in a monstrous way, along with the feeling of guilt and self-loathing. It is for the reason, the first thing Nina feels other than panic, when she encounters the sexual intercourse between Thomas and Lily (and the sees Lily as herself), is guilt. She looked at herself on the poster of Swan Lake, and runs to the hospital to Beth, even though the replacement of the character is really not her fault.
The relationship between Nina and her mother plays a crucial role of the construction of Nina’s identity. Her mother, apparently supporting and caring, is excessively controlling and neurotic. Such characteristic is shown immediately in her first conversation with Nina through the sudden but also subtle facial changes, and her black conservative outfit and rigid hair style and makeup. She constantly calls Nina “sweetheart”, and decorates her bedroom with all pink, and stuffed animals. And she is still used to make decision for Nina, and even stays beside Nina all night and leaves her with no privacy. All those morbid behaviors act as if the 28 years old Nina is still an 8-year-old little girl. In this mother-child relationship, Nina’s over-possessive mother plays out a monstrous figure similar to the castrating mother in Psycho and Carrie. Her career goal, as well as many other qualities is directly inherited from her mother. As we can see from the scene when her mother is crying while drawing her self-portraits, and the number of mirror placed in the house, she is extremely obsessed with her own mirror image, the other. But she hides her tears and a lot of times angers even in front of her own daughter Nina. She tries so hard to repress her emotions, and to hide what is perceived as “imperfection”. Due to the lack of father, there has never been a male authority figure for Nina, and her identity is thus further intertwined with her mother’s.
However, as Thomas enters Nina’s life, he becomes the substitute of the male authority, as one she always lacks. His power over Nina surpasses the original control of her mother. Nina starts to experience abjection and allows herself to attempt to break away from her mother. It is not only expressed through her actions of throwing away the stuffed animals and rejecting her mother’s requests, but also revealed in the rebellion of the repressed, the split self that attempts to annihilate the formerly constructed identity. The conflict relies on, first, Nina struggles to break free but her mother is reluctant to release it; and second, the repressed struggles to return but the ego is reluctant to accept. In Nina’s attempts to break away, her mother becomes an abject, which also means a part of her old self. The return of the repressed brings out the self-loathing side of her, along with guilt, shame and anxiety. Her fragile ego starts to crush. I suggest that her bulimic behavior is not only an intention to control her body, but is also an action to reject the self. Kristeva notes “but since the food is not an ‘other’ for ‘me,’ who am only in their desire, I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which ‘I’ claim to establish myself.” (Barbara Creed 1993: 9) This transformation of Nina, her phrase of abjection, and her sense of losing control of her own body are transformed into a visual expression through her paranoia.
The doppelganger of Nina is both her imaged self and Lily, and at a time even Beth. Visual element such as the consistency between Lily’s black and sexy costumes and the imagined other, as well as the tattoo of a pair of black wings on her back indicates he doubling with Nina. Lily, as well as Beth, possesses some desired qualities by Nina, but which are either repressed or lack. Beth was the old ideal for Nina, and presumably, when Nina was retuning her stuff, that Beth is the projection of Nina’s split identity. Then Nina’s own besieged ego, insecure identity and fear of imperfection is revealed by the monologue: “I am not perfect, I am nothing, nothing, nothing…”, and is then carried out by the self-harm deeds as Beth turns into Nina. It foreshadows the other’s later attempt to annihilate her original identity. Lily is the personification of the return of Nina’s repressed. At the first sight of Lily, Nina noticed her and tends to gaze at her, and even confused her with herself at a second. When Lily first arrives, Nina’s sight almost involuntarily follows her. As Thomas, the male authority tells Nina to lose control and “to look at the way she (Lily) moves, imprecise but effortless.” Lily’s freer and more sensual characteristics become even more desirable for Nina. Her erotic and aggressive attitudes towards Lily, which also indicates her own repressed sexual energy and bisexuality, then result in her illusion of having lesbian sex with Lily, which at the end, transform into the figure of Nina herself. For Nina, the otherness of Lily is that which is repressed within herself, and she therefore feels jealousy and hatred towards Lily. But she also admires Lily and desires her. To Nina, Lily becomes the monstrous other because her possession of the desired yet repressed personality threatens Nina’s identity. What also becomes a monster is her own body which is losing control of itself.
Mirror has always had an intimate relationship with how selfhood, subjectivity and identity are understood and experienced. As noted earlier, it is also central for the process of “mirror stage”, the formation of ego. “Mirror “frame” a character’s image, which draws attention to their “self” image, or how a character views him/herself at a given moment.” In Black Swan, mirrors and reflections are used as a motif throughout the film to indicate Nina’s dual persona. There are mirrors anywhere, in the practicing room, in makeup room, in the living room, on her closet and etc. Many of her imagined body transformation takes place in front of a mirror, while she is gazing at herself. Referring to Melchior-Bonnet’s argument: “by consistently reengaging the subject in a dialectic of being and seeming, the mirror appeals to the imagination, introducing new perspectives and anticipating other truth. The face-to-face encounter, a space of intimacy wrested from the gaze of an other, is not only the passive perception of an appearance, but a projection, a circling from desire to reflection and from reflection to desire.” (Melchior-Bonnet 2001: 157) Thus, Nina’s gazing into the mirrors also serves as a narrative drive of the storyline. The first hint about her split identity and her double with Lily is through the reflection of on the subway window. Then in the makeup room, we are constantly looking at Nina through the mirror. More interestingly, her image is both reflected through the wall mirror and the table mirror, which visually double the image, further implies her split identity. After she got selected as the new swan queen, the word “whore” is written on the mirror in the restroom. It is special because it is where she is forced to see her identified imaged with the words on it. When she puts back the stuffs she steals from Beth, she immediately gazed into the mirror image, as if she is justifying her purity and reassuring her identity. In the bar scene, we see her changed through mirror and that is when her split other is fused with Lily. The most uncanny scene is when the mirror image suddenly becomes autonomous and acts independently when she is doing the costume fitting. Here, the setup of the mirror is used as a dramatic vehicle for expressing the exigent identity of the character.
The scene where the final transformation takes place is that when Nina starts a fight with Lily, and then stabs her with a piece of mirror, and causes Nina bleed to death. It is only later, the audience and Nina herself find out the person stabs is herself. In this scene, the white swan and the black swan, the human and the monster, finally confront each other face to face. The difference between the two is exaggerated through the contrasting costumes of the two. At first, the camera position is generally from the white swan’s (human’s) point of view or from her back, making audience identify with her. When the black swan suddenly opens her eyes and sizes the white swan by her throat, the camera starts to shift between the views of the two. The distinction between the human and the monster are blurred, as white transforms into a monstrous body. Her neck stretches abnormally with the cracking sound effect, and her eyes turn into blood red. When she stabs the black swan, the music Swan Lake arrives its climax, which also implies the dramatic change. Then the music suddenly stops, emphasizing the fear and panic she experiences. Although she kills the black swan, it is not the triumph of the human and the death of the monster. Instead, it signifies the moment when the two unite into one, so the other turn back into the figure of Lily. It is interesting that it is the shard of mirror, the motif of the duality of the ego when integrated, that kills the other image, and finally unites the two. She thus, possesses the same quality she desired from Lily. The next transformation happens when the trumpet starts, marks the triumphant return of the black swan. Again the transformation of the character is expressed through the costume, the special effects on her body and in her eyes, the transforming sound design, and of course through Natalie’s performance. When the movement ends, we get a shot from the audience’s perspective. We see Nina turns back into her human body, yet we see two of her huge black swan figure shadow on the wall. Here finally distinguish from the illusion and the reality. Nina’s human body as what audience see is the reality, while the shadows is reveals Nina’s illusive perspective, but the split two are now the same.
The Black Swan uses many cinema devices to suggest the split of Nina, and fully embodies the idea of the return of the repressed. Further, it illustrates the source of repression, from her relationship with her mother, and the force of the return, from emergence of both the male authority Thomas, and the desired doppelgänger Lily.
1. Caroline Ruddel (2013), The Besieged Ego: Doppelgängers and Split Identity Onscreen
2. Robin Wood, The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s
3. Barbara Creed (1993), The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis
4. Fjoralba Miraka, Performing Otherness for the Monstrous Gaze: Racial and Sexual Fantasies in the Allegoric Orgies of Venus Noir and Black Swan
5. Francis H. Vala (2013), The Third Vision: The science of personal transformation