An obsession is “an idea or thought that continually preoccupies … a person’s mind.”1 In Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) has a dream that goes beyond a passionate pursuit. She is obsessed with reaching “perfection” as a ballet dancer. Her obsession with perfection is what drives her insane.
When a person is obsessed with one thing, other aspects of their life become neglected. Nina’s obsession with perfection has stunted her emotional maturity. Her mother calls her a “sweet girl”, and her bedroom reflects it: Filled with stuffed animals, it is decorated like a bedroom for a young girl. When Nina wins the role of the Swan Queen, she phones her mother, and, in a tone of voice like a little girl, she says, “He picked me, Mommy.” Nina has such a singular focus on her dancing, she has failed to mature as a woman.
Nina’s passion for dancing goes beyond a natural desire for excellence. Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) tells her, “Every time you dance I see you obsess, getting each and every move perfectly right.” For Nina, achieving perfection is something she believes is possible, telling Thomas, “I just want to be perfect.” Unfortunately, perfection is unattainable because there is always room for improvement.
Achieving perfection as a dancer is Nina’s path to becoming complete as a person. This marks the difference between passion and obsession: Passionate people can pursue an interest with intensity, but they have an identity apart from their passion. In contrast, obsessed people find their sole identity in the object of their obsession. Nina can never be a whole person apart from her career as a ballet dancer.
Unfortunately, Nina’s dream of playing the Swan Queen does not make her whole and complete. The pressure of the dual role puts a tremendous strain on her mental and emotional health. Thomas assures her that she can play the White Swan, but seeing her struggle during rehearsals, he has doubts about her ability to play the “evil” and “lustful” Black Swan. This leads to a doubling of Nina’s character in the film. Her personality splits in half, and a Black Swan is born. On numerous occasions, she has hallucinations of her doppelganger: in a long passageway, in the bathtub, and in the mirror at the studio. In a later scene, she imagines feathers growing from her back and her feet becoming webbed like a Swan. Nina is now suffering from insanity: “a mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality.”2 Her mother can see that she is mentally ill. The night of the performance, she tells her, “You’re sick … This role is destroying you.” The pressure of playing the Swan Queen causes Nina to become separated from her true self.
In the obsessive pursuit of her dream, Nina unleashes dark forces inside her that she cannot control. Initially, she is like the White Swan: humble, bashful, and kind. Tragically, she becomes the Black Swan: envious, paranoid, and violent. In the climax of the film, she discovers that she stabbed herself with a shard of glass. But instead of going to the hospital, she finishes her performance with blood oozing from her stomach. In the final scene, she achieves her dream, telling Thomas, “I was perfect. I felt it.” Then she pays the ultimate price: Nina loses consciousness, and the screen fades to white. Her obsession with perfection ends in death.
- Oxford Dictionaries, s.v. “Obsession,” accessed January 25, 2015, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/obsession
- Law.com, s.v. “Insanity,” accessed January 25, 2015, http://dictionary.law.com/Default.aspx?selected=979