What Does 'Black Swan' Have To Do With Carl Jung?
As I walked out of the theatre after viewing 'Black Swan' I could not help but notice the striking similarities between the primary actors' roles and certain archetypes of the unconscious mind as delineated by Carl G. Jung. This film seems to be mostly labelled as a psychological thriller, I think of it more as a psychological allegory. While it is thrilling, I am less concerned with the thrill and more so with the aspects of psychological transformation present in the film. Of the critiques I read, the general consensus seems to be that Nina, the main character, is losing her mind, becoming unhinged. I think they are somewhat off mark. Yes, to the casual observer, this would be the obvious assumption, but as they say, things are not always what they seem to be. So it is with 'Black Swan'.
Nina, played by Natalie Portman, is an aspiring and dedicated ballerina. She works hard to perfect her craft. She aspires to be the best. She wants the lead part. Not so much for the fame or the glory per se, she is too humble a character for such shallow effects. She needs the part to prove to herself that she is worthy of her work and dedication to be the best. She will find that the process is so much more than mere dance. She is faced with the challenge to search deep within herself to elevate her craft to the higher level of art. This requires a sacrifice on her part.
Nina in the beginning of the film can be viewed as what Jung would term the undifferentiated psyche, prior to individuation. This is the ego unaware of its higher Self and the unconscious mind which presents the aspirational goals of the higher Self. We can see this evidenced in Nina by her general state of affairs. She lives a sheltered life under the watchful eye of her mother, her room still has all the trappings of girlhood and youth, of innocence. Her energy is conciously directed toward the ballet and little time is left for anything else. This can be seen as the ego enamored with outer reality, giving no thought to the deep processes of the unconscious mind. Those processes which will soon begin to stir within Nina's soul and shake the foundations of her presupposed reality. As Dr. Jung posits, "So by means of dreams(plus all sorts of intuitions, impulses, and other spontaneous events), instinctive forces influence the activity of consiousness."(1)
Enter: The Animus. The ballet company director is Thomas Leroy, played by Vincent Cassel. In her audition for the lead part, Thomas questions Nina's ability to play the role of the black swan. He senses her virginal, good natured, sheltered personality will not bring authenticity to the sensual, seductive qualities necessary to fulfill the darkside of the lead role. She is a shoo-in for the white swan, but he issues a challenge to her to find her darker self to make the black swan come alive. While Leroy seems at the outset to be somewhat of a sexist, ready to take advantage of Nina, he doesn't. He appears as the manifestation of the animus archetype, having a dangerous potential, but ultimately, his interest is more in bringing out the best of Nina in the performance. It is because of her refusal in the face of his advance that she reserves for herself his respect. He is willing to give her the chance to prove herself worthy. He demonstates his higher aspect when Nina falls for his seduction by rejecting her and turning this into a lesson to Nina that what she has yet to learn is how to seduce. Leroy urges her to begin to discover her sexuality and thusly her darker side. While it may seem harsh treatment, this was symbolic of the very real potential of the animus to induce change and growth as well as guidance in the psyche of a woman. Dr. M.-L. von Franz(an associate of Dr. Jung) states, "But if she realizes who and what her animus is and what he does to her, and if she faces these realities instead of allowing herself to be possessed, her animus can turn into an invaluable inner companion who endows her with the masculine qualities of initiative, courage, objectivity, and spiritual wisdom."(2)
Introducing: The Shadow. Lily(Mina Kunis). She comes on the scene as a whir of precocious, natural talent at ease with her sensual self. Nina immediately feels threatened by Lily, knowing instinctively, that she has everything necessary to play the part of the black swan. Nina is distrustful of Lily's attempts to befriend her. Eventually, Nina acquiesces, in part to escape the overbearing protectiveness of her mother. This leads to a wild night out and ends in Nina's deeper distrust of Lily's intentions. Lily quite obviously possesses all the traits of what Jung calls the shadow, the dark side of the unconscious mind. Nina is both intrigued and repulsed by what Lily represents. Dr. M. L. von Franz says, "If the shadow figure contains valuable, vital forces, they ought to be assimilated into actual experience and not repressed. It is up to the ego to give up its pride and priggishness and to live out something that seems to be dark but actually may not be. This can require a sacrifice just as heroic as the conquest of passion, but in an opposite sense."(3) I find this quote sums up very well the whole sequence of dark events that plays out in Nina's dressing room just prior to her taking the stage as the black swan on opening night.
Interplay and Resolution
If we do a quick etymological study of the names Leroy and Lily, we can discover further evidence of their archetypical symbolism. Leroy is Le Roi, 'the king' in french. This is representative of a strong and powerful animus figure with the ability to either destroy Nina or to endow her with a new and profound sense of her nature and ability. If we examine Lily, this name instantly hearkens to Lilith, the mythological first-wife of Adam. Lilith historically conjures images of dark femininity and uninhibited behavior and sexuality. So in the names we can see reflections of the archetypes represented.
Darren Aronofsky, the director, increasingly blurs the line between Nina's inner and outer realities as if to inform us that this is a drama about the unfolding of a psychological manifestation more than it is strictly a tale of a struggling ballerina losing her mind. Nina confronts the difficulties in finding the proper relationship to her animus and incorporating her shadow. If we consider two other characters, Nina's mother(Barbara Herschey) and Beth(Winona Ryder) the fading star of the ballet, Thomas Leroy's jilted lover. We may observe in them two examples of what could be Nina's fate should she fail to achieve the integration of her psychological archetypes. Nina's mother is a former ballet dancer who gave up her aspirations and seeks her own fulfillment vicariously through her daughter's success. She is possessive and overbearing and ultimately tries to prevent Nina from taking the risk to prove her worthiness. She is what Nina will become should Nina refuse to undergo the arduous task of facing the shadow self and learning to embrace and integrate its affirmative aspects. Beth on the other hand is representative of the fate of a skewed relationship to the animus which ultimately sends her into a self-destructive spiral from which there is apparently no return. With these two examples looming ominously in Nina's peripheral vision, she is compelled and even instructed in subtle ways to take her own chances and avoid the mistakes made by these two women.
Darren Aronofsky did an exellent job of bringing out the psychological aspects, blurring the distinction between inner and outer perception. This imparts upon the viewer an awareness that what is outside us is also within us. Our witness to the external reality is the internal Self which constructs that reality, thusly informing and influencing the decisions and growth of the ego conciousness. From the actors Aronofsky coaxes all the human qualities of the archetypes making them compelling characters in the process of attainment. From the story of a ballerina aspiring to find success, the drama of a woman's psychological transformation is brought to an apex in a masterful fashion. Many people may look at the superficial details of this film and consequently label it in a shallow manner, missing its significance. If we look deeper and contemplate the symbols presented, we can discover an allegory that defines something more, something which could take place in each of us, a sacrificial introspection which has the potential to make us great, or if we ignore the challenge, to leave us unfulfilled or even to destroy us. Like Nina, the choice is ours to make.
(1) p.53, Jung, von Franz, Henderson, Jacobi, and Jaffe, 'Man And His Symbols', Dell Publishing/ copyright: 1964, by Aldus Books, Limited, London.
(2) p.206, ibid.
(3) p. 183, ibid.