The film “Black Swan” (director Darren Aronofsky) is one of the most unsettling pieces of art I have encountered in a long time. The principles give fine performances: Natalie Portman as the ballerina who is challenged to look at her dark side and Barbara Hershey as the mother, who failed at dance herself and is now trying to live through her daughter. But it is the craft of the director that is the source of the film’s psychological power.
The camera takes us right into the action–from the opening shots, we literally walk with the characters, bounce behind them as they move from place to place, in an unnerving fashion. The dancer soon reveals that she cannot tell fantasy from reality, and of course neither can the viewer. Did that really happen? we are always asking, as is she. Because she has been unable to crack the shell of her surface perfection, she is stiff and cold, not erotic and juicy, like the friend she fears wants to steal her lead in “Swan Lake.” She wants to hurt someone–her domineering mother, of course–but she cannot, and so she herself must bleed. This is the stuff of tragedy.
This film has the potential to reach deep into the psyche of every viewer, because these forces are present in all of us. It was Freud who first put forth the theory that every human being has a death instinct and a life instinct. When the death instinct is turned upon one’s self, it leads to self-destructive acts, including suicide. When Eros, or the life force, wins out, the death instinct is sometimes displaced onto others in the form of aggression. But Eros can express itself in human creativity and love instead of warring against the death instinct, he believed.
That is the challenge of our ballerina in “Black Swan,” and indeed is the challenge of every human being. First of all, we must become conscious of the dark side–whatever is unacceptable to us and we don’t want to acknowledge as part of us. It can be negative impulses like jealousy or it can be talents or desires that we don’t want to recognize, for one reason or another.
But we are afraid–we don’t want to go there, because we might lose control, we think. To acknowledge the dark side is not the same as acting upon it–it is merely bringing it to consciousness, so that we are not driven by our more unconscious motives. Then we know what is real and what is not real. Then we will not hurt ourselves or others and wonder why we do these things. Then we are free to choose, to say yes or no, to go with love and creativity and to grow in ways we never thought possible.