How Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010) uses mother-daughter relationships to establish itself as a ‘coming of age’ film
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010) is a psychological horror, surrounding the story of a ballerina named Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) as she goes on her journey to become the Swan Queen, a combination of both the white and black swan, in the New York City Ballet’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. We watch as Nina navigates her way through her desire for the role, aspiring for perfection. Her situation is further complicated by the overbearing relationship with her ex-ballerina mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey) and Thomas Leroy, her manipulative ballet director/teacher (Vincent Cassel). As the narrative progresses Aronofsky introduces more horror elements, as we watch, essentially, Nina’s descent into madness. Rivalry blossoms between Nina and her fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) and this fuels Nina’s obsession with the role of the Swan Queen. We bear witness to Nina’s growth from her sheltered, almost child-like persona (the white swan) to an evil, seductive force (the black swan).
With the help of a previously unproduced screenplay centred around the haunting feeling of an understudy, akin to the legend around doppelgängers, Aronofsky brought his prior love for Swan Lake to the film creating the perfect twisted coming-of-age. The movie received five nominations at the Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress, which Portman won. Her performance plays a major role in the film’s success as she portrays a character who ultimately metamorphosises on screen. Her ability to play both versions of Nina’s psyche is paramount to the audience’s experience with the film, allowing for us to almost feel as though we are viewing more than one actress, and ultimately achieving the goal of portraying the takeover of the black swan.
Aronofsky cleverly uses the already known difficulty and brutality of ballet and its effects on the body to introduce body horror to the film in small increments, just enough for an eerie and nightmare-like atmosphere to develop while also having the plot based in some sort of reality. This warping of reality, again, allows us to enter the confused state of Nina Sayers and experience her reality alongside her, rather than being an omniscient audience. A scene in which Nina begins to pick at a loose piece of skin on her finger in the toilet of her announcement party, shows an example of the subtle body horror elements Aronofsky uses, as Nina pulls the string of skin all the way up her finger. To counter the subtlety of this scene, a later scene shows Nina in her bedroom as her legs and arms ‘break’ as she starts ‘becoming’ the Swan Queen, an example of Aronofsky using a much more extreme type of body horror as we near the films climax. This crescendo of physical torment wonderfully reflects Nina’s mental state at each point of the film.
The character of Erica Sayers is a perfect example of an overcontrolling mother who, due to the disappointment in their own life, attempt to vicariously live through their children. The basis of this can be seen in plenty of coming-of-age films, it being a very common trope, the mother-daughter relationship being something that film makers love to explore. What makes Black Swan so special is its way of twisting this type of coming-of-age that we are all familiar with and making it dark and gritty, subverting the presentation of this common relationship while also maintaining the basis of what we expect. Throughout the film it is not only important that we witness Nina’s transformational journey, but it is also arguably just as important to pay close attention to the changes in Erica. At the very beginning of the film, we are introduced to the relationship between Nina and Erica and up until Nina getting the role of Swan Queen. I would argue we view this relationship slightly differently than what we may perhaps view it as later, the act of her daughter acquiring the role being almost a catalyst for what’s to come, in reference to their relationship. Although overbearing, the way Erica acts around Nina in the beginning can still be viewed from a place of love and care, she wants her daughter to achieve great things as a ballerina, do things she did not get a chance herself to do in her youthful years. Once Nina does achieve the role she has been pushed towards, the way Erica acts starts to change. Part of Nina’s own journey after she claims the role of Swan Queen is to move away from her mother and become a more independent woman who acts more her own age, this desire to push away being an act seen in most mother-daughter relationships depicted in coming-of-age films. This is something Erica did not anticipate or envisage in her ideal world where Nina gets to excel in her career whilst also remaining her ‘little girl’. We see plenty of examples of this, including an important scene where Nina defiantly says “NO” for the first time when asked by her mother to remove her clothes in order for her to check for self-inflicted scratches on her back. This scene also happens amongst a conversation about Erica’s past as a ballerina and perhaps the hidden resentment she holds for getting pregnant with Nina, fuelling this inner battle within the mother to both push her daughter further than she could achieve herself while also attempting to hold her back due to jealousy and regret. This sudden shift in their relationship means Erica’s actions and reactions become more from a place of panic and toxicity, and less so love for her daughter. A scene which can be almost pinpointed as a place of this sudden change is the two’s first scene together after Nina’s is told of her role in the production. When Nina arrives home, she is greeted by her mother and a cake to celebrate her new role, “It’s our favourite”, another instance where perhaps we are being shown Erica almost acting as if her and her daughter are a combined person. The non-diegetic sound of a metallic ding directly indicates the complete tonal switch in Erica’s mood, as Nina repeatedly refuses the cake, her mother’s face drops, correlating with the introduction of eerie sound. Erica immediately resorts to absolutes, “Fine, fine. Then it’s garbage.”, an extremely common defence tactic shown throughout the history of mother-daughter relationships, instead of reason and logic we witness panic and an attempt to disengage, the universal “I guess I’m just a bad mother then”. As soon as Nina hurriedly apologises, Erica switches back, this eerie atmosphere however still carrying through as we watch Nina lick icing off of her mother’s finger, clearly uncomfortable. It must also be mentioned that the small bathroom scene before this is the first scene we see where Nina uses space to represent her need for privacy, using the basket to block the door, something that escalates throughout the film, the climax being most definitely the sex scene between Portman and Kunis.
Nina’s desire for perfection is partly reinforced by her mother, “the dimensions of perfectionism include parental expectations”, and this is yet another way in which the film stresses the tensions between mother and daughter. The final look they share as Nina is at the top of the podium says plenty, both a rebellious goodbye but also a sense of mourning coming from Nina as she ultimately ends her life, be that literally or metaphorically. Ultimately, Black Swan is a perfect combination of reality/fantasy, tension, and an insight into the emotional turmoil of a young woman, coming together successfully to create a final scene that leaves us with goosebumps and questions.
— Lily Edwardes-Hill
 Anshel, M. H., Kim, J. K. and Henry, R. 2009. Reconceptualizing indicants of sport perfectionism as a function of gender. Journal of Sport Behavior, 32(4): 395–418.