Living at the Extremes: My Review of Black Swan

By Katie, 5:20 am

Warning: My review contains spoilers!

Last weekend, my brother’s girlfriend and I ditched our significant others and headed to the movie theater together.

I was excited to see Black Swan because I had heard such extreme reviews of it. Some people told me they loved it and thought it was the best movie of the year. Others thought it was terrible and never wanted to think about it again. Interestingly, those dichotomous opinions fit in perfectly with the movie’s themes.

In brief, Black Swan is about a naive, sheltered ballet dancer named Nina who gets the role of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. In order to play this role effectively, she has to embody both the White Swan (who is pure and innocent, like herself) and the Black Swan (who is dark and loose and sensual, all things Nina is not at the beginning). As Nina gets in touch with the “black swan” within her, she becomes so obsessed that she begins losing touch with reality (as does the viewer). Her story also begins to parallel the story of the Swan Queen in the ballet, including its shocking ending.

For movie buffs, Black Swan is a worthwhile view simply for its artsy cinematography and its amazing acting. Yes, there is a lot of weird, dark stuff, which sometimes serves a purpose and other times seems overly-sensationalist. But within that there are lots of interesting themes – perfectionism, balance, etc. – that I think are relevant to our discussions here on HWS.

THEME 1: Perfectionism and Reality

Nina is dedicated obsessed with ballet dancing. In case you’re not sure of that, she comes right out and says she wants to be perfect at it. Her drive to achieve this perfection – which includes learning to feel the movements rather than just performing the steps – becomes so extreme that she quickly begins losing touch with reality; in essence she loses her mind.

For me, this is most apparent when a guy in a bar asks Nina who she is, and she replies, “I’m a dancer.” He laughs and says, “No, I meant what’s your name.” It’s meant to show that Nina doesn’t just do her art; she has become her art. Which all foreshadows her later visions of actually becoming the black swan.

Seems a little wacky, no? But I find that when I take out the extreme nature of it, the whole scene looks rather familiar.

When I was obsessed with achieving perfection in my eating, a single cookie or piece of chocolate would throw me over the edge. When I was determined to get straight A’s in school, the mere possibility of a B+ caused me to panic. In essence, I too lost touch with reality in that my tunnel vision blinded me to how inconsequential a single misstep really was. Like Nina, I couldn’t see that my obsession with perfection was causing me to achieve anything but; indeed, it was fueling my own demise.

THEME 2: Living at the Extremes

Not surprisingly, Nina struggles to achieve any kind of balance; she lives at the extremes. At the beginning, she is entirely like the “white swan” – innocent, sheltered, graceful, etc. But as she starts getting in touch with her inner “black swan,” she completely loses touch with her prior self (as evidenced by the fact that in the end she falls during the white swan performance). She’s all one way, and then all the other way; never does she exist in the middle ground.

Again, while Nina’s case might be extreme, many of us can relate to her situation. We’re either dieting or bingeing. We’re either succeeding or failing. We’re either good or bad, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly. The movie is a stark reminder that living at the extremes is a surefire path to disaster.

THEME 3: The Cost of Perfect

I find the ending of Black Swan extremely intriguing. In her final hallucination, Nina ends up stabbing and inadvertently killing herself (I believe her death is a reality). By the sound of it, this is a tragic ending, no? And yet the way the movie portrays it, it doesn’t exactly feel tragic. She sees a beautiful bright light. She says she really felt the dance, that she really achieved perfection (or at least her version of it). The New York Times review calls her a “martyr” to her art, as if she willingly gives herself up for it.

And yet I have to believe that Nina is as much a victim as she is a martyr. While she may have achieved some kind of perfection in the end, the viewer cannot help but ask, “But at what cost?” Perhaps the message is that while our lofty goals may be attainable, we inevitably lose ourselves in the process. Not to mention that her desire for perfection is, in the first place, determined as much by outside forces and pressures – her mom, the ballet director, her peers, the art of dance – as it is by her own wishes.

A Note on Eating Disorders:

It should be noted that Black Swan attempts to portray the ballet world as accurately as possible, which means the film includes the intense competition and body pressures that are so often associated with it. The actresses are extremely thin, and Nina obviously suffers from an eating disorder (no doubt part of her perfectionism). While I respect the film for including this reality, it can be triggering for people struggling with an eating disorder or a negative body image. As always, I urge you to take care of yourself first; no movie is worth putting yourself in a compromised, triggering position.

Have you seen Black Swan? If so, what did you think? Do you agree or disagree with my analysis?

What’s the best movie you’ve seen recently?

29 Responses to “Living at the Extremes: My Review of Black Swan

  1. Nicole, RD says:

    I am going to see the movie this weekend…and now I especially can’t wait!

  2. Sarah says:

    Perfect summary of the movie. I agree with all your points. I felt such a connection to Nina: the constant internal pressure to perfect and the living in the extremes. I’m pretty sure her mother didn’t help the situation at all. While I enjoyed the movie I’m not sure if I will go see it again because it seems like such a honest representation of perfectionism and idealism that modern women often work towards (whether it’s ballet or eating or motherhood or career). Such an exagerrated example of a problem that many women face (myself included) can be a bit scary sorta what could happen if we allow ourselves to be carried away by our perfectionism.

  3. I haven’t seen the movie yet, so maybe my comment doesn’t have a place, but I have to disagree a bit with your comment about Nina being a victim and not a martyr. I dont think the public understands how much dancers go through. I left ballet school because I couldn’t keep up emotionally, it was incredibly competitive, and if your toes werent on the verge of bleeding you werent working hard enough. Dancers really do have to fight to keep their art alive, to find a new way to engage an audience and receive acclaims. I think it’s easy to say that Nina became a victim. But once dancers reach their peak, they have given themselves completely to their art (just not in such a dramatic way).

    • Katie says:

      Thank you for sharing your own experience, Alex. I was never a dancer, so I definitely don’t know those pressures first hand. I think that the film is trying to show Nina as BOTH a martyr and a victim, as her dedication to the art form is often overshadowed by the desires of those around her – she is making decisions for others as much as for herself, and in this case ends up losing herself completely in the process.

  4. I saw Black Swan over the Christmas holiday, and I was so intrigued by it. I saw much of myself in it (the themes of course — I’ve never been a ballet dancer) and thought long and hard about the scene in which the director and Nina are watching the other girl dance. He tells Nina that she’s not technically perfect but that it doesn’t matter because of the way she’s fully in the character of the dance. It made me think about how I sometimes get lost in form over substance too… not as much as in the past, but it’s an on-going process.

    I think the eating disorder aspect of the film was included very tactfully and not “in your face” or exaggerated, which was a good thing.

  5. Holly says:

    I haven’t seen this yet, but I really want to! I am just having trouble finding someone who is willing to see it, too. :-/

    The best movie I have seen recently is “Social Network.” It takes a really good movie to hold my attention throughout the film, and this definitely did that!

  6. I really enjoyed this movie. I think you described it accurately. She was so determined to be perfect that she was willing to do anything to achieve it. The best movie I’ve seen recently is True Grit. It was so good. But if documentary is more your style Tapped was really good as well. It’s about the bottled water industry.

  7. I feel like I’m the only person that didn’t really like this movie! I actually found it to be predictable. I’m usually disappointed by over-hyped movies…. I like your post about it though!

    • Katie says:

      Yeah, once I realized that her story was paralleling the Swan Lake story, I could kind of figure out where it was heading.

  8. [...] mind, and spirit are at a healthy crossroad. Plus, she wrote a really interesting film review of Black Swan- I’m obsessed with that movie, and hearing anyone else’s perspective makes my toes [...]

  9. I haven’t seen it yet, but I really want to. Everyone around me either loves it or hates it. Being a former psych major and current counseling student, I think I would find it interesting, if nothing else!

  10. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jen Saunders, Katie McLaughlin. Katie McLaughlin said: Living at the Extremes: My Review of Black Swan [...]

  11. Leslie says:

    I really liked your post (and this movie!). Good description of the themes and Nina’s perfectionism. As a ballet dancer as a kid & teen, it definitely influenced my body image in negative ways. I never had an ED, but had a pretty distorted body image when I was at a very healthy weight at the time. These are things I think about a lot as I have struggled with my own subsequent weight gain and perfectionism. Thanks for the thoughtful review!

  12. Great post. I so intimately relate to seeing and existing at only the extremes – dieting/bingeing, good/bad, etc. and you just cannot have a happy and healthy life there.

    And I totally agree with you about being a victim to her art as well.

    Lots to think about.

  13. Thanks for reviewing this – I was inclined to pass, before, now I’d like to see it. Funny, we do want our artists to be great, and that does require sacrifice on their parts – but I for one don’t want anyone killing him or herself to be “perfect.”

  14. Meredith says:

    Great post Katie. I found it triggering in some ways, but it very much helped to remind me of all the dark parts of an eating disorder… the black-and-white thinking, the basis of self-worth on a minor detail, the intensity of being in one’s own mind too much, the anxiety.. ugh. So glad that I have been in a recovery state of mind for years now…

  15. I saw the movie a few weeks ago and had similar reactions. I like your take on Nina as a victim as much as a martyr. The perfectionism, while enhanced for a dramatic film, was not so far off from what many – particularly those with eating disorders – strive for.

  16. I have never been as happy with my five minute back adjustment at the chiropractor then after I watched this movie.

    I wondered if Nina was suffering from a mental break due to all the pressure and stress she was under (and having no real way to “vent” and no healthy support system). She was itching herself to the point where her mom had a whole contingency plan to hide the damage while Nina danced. Throughout the movie she had to hide what was going on in her head for fear she would lose the Swan Queen role because people would think she couldn’t take the pressure of being a prima ballerina.

    In some ways I felt like I was under immense pressure while suffering from BED and the only way I could cope was to engage in destructive behaviors. I, also, didn’t feel like I had an adequate support system to ask for help. I was afraid announcing what was going on would label myself as “weak.” I still don’t talk about what was going on with my family because I’m afraid that people will see me as messed up, or families members will infer that they did something wrong to cause my suffering.

    • Katie says:

      Yes, yes, and yes! I hadn’t thought about the film in terms of Nina’s lack of support system and need to hide her struggles, but I think you’re spot on! And I can relate to that situation as well; I sometimes worry about my family and friends reading this blog because I’m afraid they’ll think less of me because of my struggles.

  17. So glad to read your review. I am thinking that it might be really triggering for me, so I’m not sure if I’ll actually see Black Swan. But I agree that she seems as much victim as martyr. Although Natalie Portman makes a choice, I’m not sure that it’s so black and white for women who are dancers in real life, who are compelled to go to the extremes of madness in order to succeed in such a highly competitive world.

  18. [...] “balance” a lot here on Health for the Whole Self, about finding the middle ground between the extremes. And while I often look at it through the lens of food and exercise, the idea of balance can be [...]

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