In the following essay, I will attempt to make an analysis of the film “Black Swan” by using Freud’s very famous model of the human psyche that he organised into three parts: the id, the ego, and the superego.
According to Freud, our personality has more than one facet, and these systems, not to be mistaken by sections of the brain, are developed at different stages of an individual’s life.
Starting with the id, which consists of our instinctive primal drives. The id is impulsive, illogical, irrational, and unconscious, and its main concern is to fulfil our desires, our instincts, and for that reason the id is labeled as selfish.
It is the only part of our personality already existent at birth, together with the sex and death instincts – Eros, and Thanatos respectively. It also incorporates hidden memories.
The id needs immediate satisfaction, which means that every impulse, no matter how inappropriate or socially unacceptable it can be, or what consequences it may cause, it needs to be pleased.
A great example of the id is a baby, who is driven by the principles of pleasure, and instant satisfaction.
While the id is unreasonable, the ego, or the “I”, functions by reason. It tries to find a way to please id’s needs through realistic means.
In other words, the ego recognises the social norms, and values when it comes to deciding how to act, consequently, quite often it puts on hold id’s satisfaction in order to prevent bad consequences.
The superego is the bit of society in our heads. It embodies the morals and values that we acquire with our parents and with society itself.
The superego’s role is to control the id’s impulses. It also has the function of convincing the ego to turn to moralistic goals instead of just realistic ones, and also to seek for perfection.
In the superego, there are two systems: the conscience, and the ideal self. In which, the first one can punish the ego by causing feelings of guilt. For instance, in the case where the ego surrenders to the id’s needs, the superego can make the individual feel bad over guilt.
The ideal self, or ego-ideal, is a fictitious image of how you should be, how to treat others, and how to function as a member of society.
A behaviour that fails the ideal self may suffer a punishment through guilt, and shame by the superego, on the other hand, when an individual acts in a “proper” way, the superego may reward this person through the ideal self through the feelings of accomplishment, and pride.
It is worth noticing that in the case where a individual’s ideal self is very high, it does not matter what this person does, it will express failure.
The conscience, and the ideal self is mainly formed during a person’s childhood, and it comes from the values we learn with our parents, and the way we are raised.
“Black Swan” is an American psychological film directed by Darren Aronofsky. The movie tells the story of Nina Sayers, played by Natalie Portman, who is a ballerina from New York City.
After the retirement of the leading character of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassell) starts to look for a new dancer, someone who is capable of embracing the dual part of the role, the white swan, who is innocent, fragile, and graceful, and the black swan who is dark, and sensual.
In this movie, we can encounter the three elements of Freud’s psychoanalysis, mentioned above, through the three main characters of Nina’s circle.
Her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), clearly represents the superego. She is strict, moralising, and the one who is making sure that Nina always stands by the rules.
She is also pushy, and controlling, always aiming at perfection. Erica still treats Nina as if she was a little kid. She is also the one protecting her from Lily, another ballerina from the company, and Thomas.
Illustrations of Erica’s character can be noticed in the dialogues from the following scenes. In the first one, they are talking about the director of the ballet Thomas, and the second one is a scene where Lily stops by Nina’s apartment to apologise.
1. “Erica: Has he tried anything with you? He has a reputation. I have a right to be concerned, Nina. You’ve been staying late so many nights rehearsing. I hope he isn’t taking advantage.
Nina: He’s not.
Erica: Good. I just don’t want you to make the same mistake I did.”
2. “Nina: What are you doing here?
Lily: I just came by to apologise. You’re right, I should have never spoken to him about you.
Erica: interrupts Sweetheart.
Nina: Give me a second.
Erica: Your dinner.
Nina: Mom! Please?
Lily: Oh, she’s a trip.
Nina: How do you know where I live?
Lily: I have my ways.
notices Nina’s nervousness
Lily: Jesus, relax! I got it from Susie in the office. Look, I just feel really shitty about what I did and I just really want to make it up to you, so how about I take you out to dinner?
Nina: I don’t think…
Lily: interrupts Ok, that’s fine! What about drinks?
Erica: Sweetie, you need to rest.
Lily: chuckles Jesus!
goes into the apartment to grab shoes and a coat
Erica: What are you doing?
Nina: Going out!”
Both Thomas and Lily embody the id in this story. Thomas is the element of Nina’s subconscious that is eager for her to loosen up, and to use her sexuality in order to enhance her performance.
3. “Nina: I came to ask for the part.
Thomas Leroy: The truth is when I look at you all I see is the white swan. Yes you’re beautiful, fearful, and fragile. Ideal casting. But the black swan? It’s a hard fucking job to dance both.
Nina: I can dance the black swan, too.
Thomas Leroy: Really? In four years every time you dance I see you obsessed getting each and every move perfectly right but I never see you lose yourself. Ever! All that discipline for what?
Nina: whispers I just want to be perfect.
Thomas Leroy: What?
Nina: I want to be perfect.
Thomas Leroy: scoffs Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go. Surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience. Transcendence! Very few have it in them.
Nina: I think I do have it in me.”
4. “Thomas Leroy: You could be brilliant, but you’re a coward.
Nina: I’m sorry.
Thomas Leroy: yelling Now stop saying that! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Stop being so fucking weak!”
5. “Thomas Leroy: I got a little homework assignment for you. Go home and touch yourself. Live a little.”
Lily, portrayed by the actress Mila Kunis, is a free-spirited dancer, and the complete opposite of Nina. She is constantly teasing Nina in order for her not to follow the rules all the time, and have fun. Lily entices Nina with alcohol, drugs, and sex.
This is from a scene, where Lily and Nina are at the bar:
6. “Lily: You can’t go. I just got us some drinks.
What are going to do? Go home to mommy.
Live a little.”
Therefore, Nina represents the ego. She is the one in charge of mediating her mom’s overprotective efforts, and her own impulsive desires, which are provoked by Lily and Thomas, as illustrated above.
Lily (the id), and Erica (the superego), in different occasions they clash, so Nina is forced to arbitrate.
Nina is a perfectionist gullible dancer, who still lives with her mom, sleeps in a pink bedroom that looks like a room of a little girl, and is treated as one, because her mom still dresses her, cooks for her, and even tucks her into bed.
She speaks softly, and with a childish voice, particularly around her mother.
That is why the dual part of the swan queen becomes very difficult for her to accomplish, once it requires someone who is able to be both the fragile and graceful white swan, as well as the sensual and greedy black swan.
Even though during the audition Nina gives a wonderful performance as the white swan, she fails to incarnate the black one. Nevertheless, she is determined to get the part, and very perfectionist as she is, Nina asks Thomas for another chance to prove that she is good enough for the role.
7. “Thomas Leroy: The only person standing in your way is you.”
Her internal struggle starts the moment her id caves in to get the part of swan queen. Once she is given the role of swan queen, she realises this is her chance to prove to the others, and to herself that she can do this, which then leads to a routine of nonstop practice, and unhealthy habits.
In order to maintain a stable psych, Nina is constantly trying to balance her id, and her superego. At first, the superego is in control, but then her instinctive drives, and her desire to grow into a person overpowers the superego.
Nina, the ego, is no longer capable of making decisions, so she starts, subconsciously, to plant elements of her psyche onto others.
Therefore, throughout the film we see Nina on a psychological journey to dive into the part of the black swan (the id) stimulated by both Thomas and Lily. Nina succumbs to her primal drives, such as exploration of her sexuality and drugs, and goes against her morals, and values, constantly reminded by her mom (the superego).
8. “Erica: What happened to my sweet girl?
Nina: She’s gone!”
We witness Nina’s transformation as her id starts to triumph over her superego, and consequently a downward spiral of her mental wellbeing.
All the stress, and pressure of such demanding role, as well as the demands from her mom, and the jealousy from her peers is too much for Nina to cope with.
As a consequence, she becomes neurotic, she starts having psychotic breaks, aggressive acts towards others, and herself (self-injury), and hallucinations.
It is important to notice that the line between what is real and what is fantasy blurs throughout the film, as Nina starts losing touch with reality and her delusions increase, and she becomes very paranoid.
One may even suggest that the character Lily is not real, but just a figment of her imagination.
In one scene in particular, she believes that after her night out with Lily, they slept together.
9. “Nina: You put something in my drink.
Nina: And then you just took off in the morning?
Lily: In the morning?
Nina: Yeah, you slept over.
Lily: baffled Um… no. Unless your name is Tom and you got a dick.
Nina: But we…
Lily: But we what, Nina?
Lily: Wait… did you have some sort of lezzy wet dream about me?
Nina: whispers Stop it.
Lily: Oh my God? Oh my God! You did! You fantasised about me!
Nina: embarassed Shut up!
Lily: gasps Was I good?”
The sweet and innocent Nina becomes entangled in this world, where she can no longer distinguish real from imagined, which ends up leading to her own downfall.
In her last moments, her id is still very much in force. At the last scene of the Swan Lake, where she is supposed to fall backwards to “fake” her death can be interpreted as her jumping out from the restraints of her superego. She then dives into her perfection, where she can cave into all the needs, and urges of her id.
10. “Thomas Leroy: Nina, what did you do?
Nina: I felt it. Perfect. It was perfect.”