Dissociative identity disorder, or multiple personality disorder, is a prominent focal point in literature and film. Before recent improvements in understanding, there were societies which associated personality changes with demonic possession. This is consistent with the first depictions in feature length film. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Mummy and House of Dracula were among the earliest movies to portray these character traits.
More recently the portrayal of dissociation in film became multi-dimensional. Sam Raimi uses it in Spider-Man to establish the complicated Green Goblin; Christian Bale in The Machinist develops a dissociative character to extinguish guilt; and in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, Leonardo DiCaprio portrays a man with dual personalities, established to repress the memories of murdering his manic-depressive wife. The horror genre has also continued to exploit this theme; James Mangold’s Identity and M. Night Shyamalan’s Split depict someone with many personalities, one of whom is a serial-killer.
Perhaps the most nuanced and sobering portrayal of dissociation and fragmentation in film is Darren Aronofsky’s psychological-thriller Black Swan. The divisive director, famed for his surreal, disturbing features, dials the melodrama up to eleven in this visceral depiction of a New York ballet group and their interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Natalie Portman plays the ballerina Nina Sayers as she competes with her contemporaries for Swan Queen, the revered prima role. Portman’s Academy Award -winning performance drives the film, and the viewer’s mind, into tumult, as she is pitted against frenemy Lily (Mila Kunis). Lily is everything Nina is not; uninhibited, reckless and loquacious. Their rivalry, or at least Nina’s interpretation of it, catalyses her descent into internal destruction and dissociation.
In quintessential Aronofsky manner, Black Swan is littered with complex themes, chief among them the loss of self-image and depersonalisation as a consequence of sustained pressure. The lead character must commit themselves fully to realise their dream, but at what cost and to serve whose hubris? Vincent Cassell plays the malignant artistic director Thomas Leroy, a repulsive man-in-power figure who coordinates the production. Leroy provides the scaffolding for Terence Fletcher’s character in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash; they are similar individuals who skirt the line between aggressive motivators and sadists. They are at their core damaged goods and their actions serve to damage good people.
“This is typified by Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder), the dance company’s spurned lead dancer and former flame of Leroy, who jumps in front of traffic after being replaced. It is at this juncture in the narrative where Nina is manipulated and cerebrally ensnared. Leroy insinuates that Beth’s dangerous nature allowed her to thrive while simultaneously berating Nina over her limitations. Although her elegance and control allow her to flourish as the white swan Odette, it is precisely these features which prevent her from convincingly playing the black swan Odile. The pressure to be perfect in the contrasting roles literally and figuratively tears Nina apart. She develops a separate, distinct personality in a subconscious attempt to succeed as Odile. This idea of warring factions is consistent in many people who have multiple personalities; the self-destructive aspects juxtaposed with those that want to survive. This can manifest as self-harm which Nina displays through scratching her back and her ongoing bulimia.
Portman’s performance cannot be praised highly enough. In pre-production she was undertaking 5 hours of exercise a day, complete with rigorous choreography which reflects her on-screen prowess. There is still some controversy over Portman’s input, with one of her doubles stating that she performed approximately 5% of full-body shots. In contrast, Aronofsky claims it was 80%, but regardless, Portman’s ability to switch between maiden and menace is striking; almost a direct follow-up to Evey in V for Vendetta. Currently preparing for her role as Thor, it is important to remember that lightning struck first in 2010’s Black Swan, where she hammered home a lifetime performance.
Dissociation is typically associated with past trauma and/or a propensity towards mental illness. Barbara Hershey plays Nina’s difficult mother, a character with deep-seated discontent and shades of Minnie Castevet in Rosemary’s Baby. Her dance career was prematurely cut short following her pregnancy, presumably by some anti-paternal Leroy-esque womaniser. Through protective coddling of Nina, along with a remarkably babyish room outfitted with music boxes, dolls and garish pink wallpaper, she has trapped her daughter under a white swan veil. However, keeping Nina infantized – there are umpteen references querying her virginity and vulnerability – has predisposed her to mental health struggles. The ironic trigger is another Leroy, with his own prerogative and predilections.
The permeating allegory of diminished self-image in the entertainment business is ubiquitously expressed. Often, people with dissociative disorders do not recognise the person in the mirror. A face they do not connect with, characteristic of depersonalisation. This is even more accurate now than in 2010. With the emergence of social media as a medium to modulate self-image, young people are under growing pressure to appear a certain way. It is increasingly utilised as a means of validation without any meaningful connection. This is the same standard of validation that Nina craves, both in appeasing Leroy and allowing her over-bearing mother to continue living vicariously.
Matthew Libatique returns as Aronofsky’s DOP, and delivers on disorientating visuals. Following on from and in contrast with the fantastical cinematography in The Fountain, Libatique uses 16mm cameras to generate a grainy realism. The light, moveable filming devices allow for a candid approach to Nina’s destruction, with jarred editing and shaky cuts reinforcing her fragility. From the close quarters of murky bathrooms to the spacious dancefloors, we follow Nina closely, with an intimacy that accentuates every glance and grimace. This terminates in a dressing room scene where Nina confronts and assaults Lily. A large mirror is smashed, reinforcing the fragmentation of Nina’s psyche, before she stabs and kills Lily with a shard. The self-destructive roles have changed, and Nina has fully embraced the black swan.
Themes of mirrors and dual personalities dominate the narrative. Nina is permanently assessing herself; in the bathroom, while applying make-up and in the wide-spanning mirrors of the recital room. Ultimately, Aronofsky uses mirrored images to drive his artistic nuance. A fusion of Tchaikovsky fiction and New York ballet non-fiction. Nina is Lily, Odette is Odile and Leroy switches between Prince Siegfried and the owl-like sorcerer Rothbart.
Aronofsky teams up again with Clint Mansell, the most underrated composer in Hollywood. The score matches the mood flawlessly, with Tchaikovsky’s most famous pieces balanced against jarring and impending tones. Due to the original compositions, the score was unfortunately deemed ineligible for Academy Award consideration. Both aforementioned professionals had worked on The Wrestler in 2008. This was a project which Aronofsky always envisioned as a companion piece to Black Swan, and their similarities are testament to this. Two entertainers willing to sacrifice themselves for their livelihood, culminating in fatal falls on their respective stages.
Various inspirations emerge throughout the twisted plot, from David Cronenberg to Roman Polanski, from All About Eve to Dostoevsky’s The Double; Black Swan is a carefully constructed psychological powerhouse. Even the purest swan can descend into irreversible depravity, as Aronofsky heavily insinuates through suggestive metaphysical undertones. The combination of good-and-evil clichés are balanced against the raw, jutting ballet scenes, complete with shattered toenails and peeling skin. In a post-Weinstein/Epstein era, authoritative chauvinists like Leroy are all too believable, and highlight the misuse of responsibility entrusted to them. Leroy struts to a Machiavellian rhythm and his sustained rebukes of Nina, especially of her shortcomings in the portrayal of the black swan, leave little in the way of metaphorical subtlety.
Black Swan holds up as one of the defining psychological thrillers of the 21st century. Overtly melodramatic and packed with topical themes, it sometimes borders on overblown, especially with the secondary characters as they struggle to match up to Portman’s ability. The aspects of dissociation are largely accurate, providing a gritty but refined illustration of mental health. Nina’s growing hallucinations and anxiety are matched only by the disconcerted audience, as we approach the denouement with bated breath. Themes of acceptance, supplantation and imposter syndrome are resonant, corkscrewing the jagged plot through to the swan’s final flight.