Published on septiembre 1st, 2015 | by UReporter0
The Real Trauma Behind “The Black Swan” (the movie)
By Luisa Fernanda López Piza
For Composition 1 (Professor Floria Zamora)
Black Swan, the 2010 movie that gave actress Natalie Portman an Academy award, was recognized for the accurate portrayal of many aspects of the physical and personal hazards that professional ballet dancers experiment in their careers. Elements like extreme weight loss, competition amongst colleagues, sexual promiscuity or experimentation (such as bisexuality) and frantic training sessions that take a toll on the integrity of their bodies and minds, were depicted with almost surgical precision. At the same time, its cinematography, writing, character development and plot have been praised by movie critics and professional ballerinas as well.
As curious as is seems, an exception to this, according to Natalie Portman herself, happens in the scene in which her character, Nina, falls on stage on her final presentation. Portman says that, in reality, none of the girls backstage would be concerned in the least about her knee, her emotional status or her general well-being. This tiny slip is insignificant compared to what other professionals say about the film. In the psychiatry field, the ovations come accompanied by curious observations relative to Nina’s mental condition, from both the positive and the negative side of the court.
Nina Sayers, is a young ballet dancer who lives with an overprotective mother and is dedicated to an almost obsessive level to her dancing. She prides herself of her nearly perfect moves and technique and ambitiously desires the main role of the Swan Princess in her company’s upcoming production of “The Swan Lake”. After getting the role, she must radically adapt to its demands. Nina forces herself to transition from a perfectionist, quiet and almost childish girl, to a woman full of sexual confidence who embraces her imperfections. This metamorphosis takes her to the edge because of several factors. One of them is her coach’s urges to be more sexually open, to let go of her perfect dance moves and who confronts her with encounters that often come with aggressive sexual advances. Also, her rivalry with Lily, another ballerina that poses a threat to Nina, obsesses her to the point of trying to kill her when she feels her role might be taken away from her. At the same time, her mother tries to hold her back from evolving and this moment is when Nina realizes how much she needs to create a life and a vital space of her own, but not without having a meltdown and physically hurting her mother in the process. Also, as a part of her upbringing or her personality, Nina tries to reach perfection. In what way? Apparently in her craft: ballet. This compromises other aspects of her life such as her social interactions and her relationship with superiors and coworkers.
The sum of all these factors takes a very big toll on Nina. The first and most notorious trace of her distress is a strong paranoia, added to a difficulty to tell reality and imaginary elements from each other. There are scenes in which this paranoia is easy to observe, for example, the bathroom scene, in which Nina calls her mother to inform her that she obtained the leading role. No one can be heard entering the bathroom, however, when Nina comes out of the stall, she finds the word “whore” written in red lipstick on the mirror. She had stolen a red lipstick from her director´s former lover and then wore it to go to his office and ask for the part. This message on the mirror could be a creation of her mind, in which she sabotaged herself into feeling unfit for the role. Also, in several occasions she feels observed, followed or talked about, especially by the other ballerinas of her company.
Lily, another ballerina from San Francisco also causes a reaction on Nina. Nina feels she is a threat to her performance, as she realizes Lily possesses all the elements of character she lacks. Her sexual and social openness, her careless dancing skills and a suspected sexual relationship with their coach, make Nina uneasy since the moment she meets her. Because of this, she often sees herself in Lily’s place, only to realize, a second later, that it was a product of her imagination. Linked to this, Nina begins to experience hallucinations. She sees paintings move, hears whispers, her reflection in the mirror acts on its own (or maybe she acts unconsciously in front of the mirror) and, in general, she sees things that are not there.
This goes hand in hand with her disciplined eating habits, which apparently grow more severe during the days leading up to the final presentation. According to several physicians, improper eating results in deficiencies of certain elements and chemicals in the human brain and body, causing people who suffer from disorders, like Anorexia or Bulimia Nervosa, to be unable to endure psychological pressure, caused by such things as professional challenges that would seem normal for a well-nourished individual. Nina’s case is a common combination of both afflictions. She eats as little as possible, and when she does, she vomits after to ensure she will not gain more weight than necessary. These behaviors are usual in people who believe they must remain thin for one reason or another and it is a typical method for ballet dancers to maintain the physical standards their careers demand.
On the other hand, Nina suffers from very intense anxiety episodes. From scratching her back compulsively, to vomiting when she experiences a disturbing episode (associated to the previously mentioned Bulimia). This however, is not a disease! It is a symptom caused by the threatening and stressing context around her. Added to the collection of problems, she must find a way to develop herself sexually in two very different environments. She must, and she wants to, open up to new experiences. However, while her work atmosphere demands that from her, she is unable to do so because of her childish personality and her controlled and restrictive living environment. Nina is, therefore, unable to leave her childish mentality behind her and look for sexual maturity. She also gives an unclear answer to Thomas’s question about being a virgin or not.
Now, all these factors combined add up to a series of episodes that would drive anybody into suicide (which is not clear in the movie but strongly suggested). However, according to some psychiatrists, a clear diagnosis of her condition cannot be made. The reason lies behind a very important element: Nina´s contact with reality. In simple words, a person who suffers from hallucinations does not have the same approach to reality as a person who throws up after eating. Schizophrenic people lose contact with reality, causing them to see and hear things that are not there, feeling like somebody is following them or trying to hurt them, and that they are the center of other people’s conversations. This is Nina’s case but with a small difference, her hallucinations are mostly visual and not auditory, which are the most common kind.
On the other hand, bulimic and anorexic people have a different approach on reality: they are in very close contact with it. People who suffer these eating disorders are aware of their social and physical surroundings, so much so, that simple problems are often over dimensioned. They plan their life around their disorders and the reasons that drive them not to eat properly. Because of this, bulimic and anorexic people are usually very mindful of what they perceive socially and in their surroundings.
So, the main contradiction is that if Nina hallucinates! She is not in touch with reality! If she has unhealthy eating habits, she is too much in contact with it, and anxiety is just a symptom that can be caused by either or both issues. According to this specific group of psychiatrists, Nina cannot be in both categories and the psychological developers of the film should have chosen one approach to her mental state in order to make her particular case more accurate from the mental health perspective. This being said, doesn’t mean Nina’s experience is impossible or that lacks credibility. According to these physicians, her case resembles very much that of a person with psychosis, a person’s disconnection from reality, but she is definitively, not schizophrenic. The eating habits come together with her professional career and her lifestyle, but they must not be combined to the list of behaviors of an average psychotic person.
In the field of mental health, Nina’s case would have been very difficult to diagnose. Her condition was unstable enough to make her suffer all these symptoms but she is not close to a real disease. Her circumstances are realistic and a very deep investigation took place to create an accurate portrayal of her sufferings, but her case must not be used as an example of a text-book mental condition. All of this is according to Dr. Steve Lamberti, Director of the Schizophrenia Treatment Research Laboratory at University of Rochester Medical Center, New York, in an interview with Susan Donaldson James for ABC News. As stated by Lamberti, Nina´s condition is not schizophrenia because of her unclear relationship with her reality and surroundings. People with this disorder, experience episodes where reality seems distorted and they have difficulty to discriminate reality and their own mental constructions. In the movie, this is the case for both Nina and the audience Although as viewers, we are more capable of making the discernment between them. On the other hand, at some point Nina consciously ingested some kind of drug that makes her hallucinates to the point of imagining a sexual encounter with Lily. The name of the drug is not mentioned, but it may have been some form of ecstasy that triggered her symptoms.
Also, her anorexic and bulimic tendencies are somewhat imprecise. She does suffer an eating disorder; there is no doubt about that. However, the combination of these symptoms with the schizophrenic ones mentioned above are not typical at all. These factors have led Lamberti to believe Nina’s potential diagnosis is not Schizophrenia but a case of extreme Psychosis.
The particular combination of elements, symptoms and responses from Nina are not found under a label in a text book according to Lamberti, but are winged under the great order of psychosis (loss of contact with reality), which holds an enormous variety of shapes and forms. Under this circumstances, Nina’s case could be placed under this category of mental conditions since it would make it possible to add up her hallucinations to her eating disorders. Lamberti says this suffering is not rare, and it shows many different ways of developing. However, the extent of Nina’s condition is extreme. He also states that it would have been unlikely that an artist had performed in such a condition since Psychosis makes people unable to perform tasks of great physical or mental demand. On the other hand, he rescues the fact that dancers, musicians and other artists are able to execute their craft even under substantial psychological burdens.
So, to put everything in simple words, what does the film Black Swan portray at the end of the day? Not Schizophrenia. Darren Aronofsky’s film paints a very clear and particular picture of an episode of Psychosis, that occurs to a woman with a distinct upbringing, professional and personal circumstances, and that is exposed to extraordinary pressure. To non-mental health professionals like myself, the film is brilliantly written and must be watched many times to fully appreciate how complete and detailed it is. For others, physicians, this may not be the case, although it is very clear that the amount of research and preparation to create this work of art were tremendous.