[image via Fuzzy Typewriter]
ATTENTION: Don't read this if you intend to see Black Swan. It spoils everything.
Of the four films I’ve seen by Darren Aronofsky, two have been about obsession/mental illness, and two have been about drug addiction. Black Swan, like Aronofsky's first film Pi*, is clearly about obsession/mental illness – schizophrenia, among other issues, I would imagine. As Natalie Portman’s character, Nina, moves through this film, her mental state degenerates. She is metaphorically and actually provoked to split in two by her deep desire to dance both leads in Swan Lake – she moves from light to dark, good girl to bad girl, White Swan to Black Swan.
There are two early scenes which set up the film. One is Nina's dream about dancing the lead. (After the film is over, and we learn what ultimately happens to her, we realize the seeds of her mental split have already been planted.)
The other is on the subway, when Nina is coming home from rehearsal, dressed in white. She looks through the window to the next car. She finds another young girl dressed in black. Nina is fascinated, obsessed, and continues to gaze at the other girl. Perhaps she wants to know her, but is separated by the cars. I believe Aronofsky is using the subway window as a device, alluding to Corinthians 13:12:
For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
He continues this device to the end of the film, when Nina basically tries to throw her own self through the mirror -- to step through the mirror to the other side and know her whole self, both light and dark together. But this too much for her mind to handle. She gets caught in between. Her fatal wound is caused by the mirror shard.
But back to the action. When Nina runs off the subway towards the scaffolding, we see a dark figure. She seems to pose a threat. Then we get a confusing flash that the dark figure is Nina herself. At that point in the film, it is almost fantastical. We don’t know yet that it is a preview of coming attractions.
The director casts Nina in the lead, and continues to push her to feel more, to “let herself go.” Little does he know that he is pushing her to let go of reality altogether. Her mother is worried that the stress of this role will push her to madness, as Nina has shown signs of this condition all her life, manifested in her incessant scratching. We also learn from this stifling mother-daughter relationship that the mother is a little mad, and also barely holding herself together.
Towards the end of the film, when Nina gets to the point of scratching and pulling barbs out of her skin, we realize that those barbs are black feathers! She perhaps has had this desire to dance Swan Lake all of her life. Back to Corinthians: but then face to face/ but then shall I know even as also I am known. Her two selves (inner dark self and outer perfect child) shall no longer be separated by her skin. She will scratch through that barrier. She will marry her two selves into one being. She will grow feathers.
Once we have decoded the meaning of the scratching, we realize that this is probably Nina's ultimate purpose in life -- to dance this dual lead in Swan Lake. It may be the culmination of her career and total realization as a dancer. It is. She dies having given a Perfect Performance. She has given herself totally and completely to her art, trying to discover the truth of herself through her art. But then shall I know even as also I am known. “I am known” refers to being known by God, and knowing both selves through God. Nina dies as the White Swan. It is suggested that she is redeemed in death.
*I totally recommend watching Pi. It's about Math vs. Kabbalah. Watch the preview on YouTube