Posted on Thursday, January 13th, 2011 by David Chen
Black Swan was one of the /Filmcast’s favorite films of the year. But after watching the film, one of the things I was left wondering was: what the hell is going on in the relationship between Nina (Natalie Portman) and her mom, Erica (Barbara Hershey)?
Hit the jump for some theories, and feel free to share your own. And it goes without saying, but SPOILERS for Black Swan follow the break.
Black Swan is an interesting film for many reasons, not the least of which is that this story is told through the eyes of an unreliable narrator. Each of Nina’s relationships is imbued with an ominous sense of menace, and we rarely receive any respite from this uncomfortable feeling throughout the course of the film. In particular, Nina’s relationship with Erica feels incredibly abusive and restrictive. As the film progresses, the foundations of this precarious mother-daughter bond begin to crumble precipitously.
On that topic, there were a few mother-daughter scenes in this film that left me unsettled, but also curious if there was something else going on in this relationship that we weren’t privy to on the screen. In our initial review of the film, I speculated that Erica was one of the most misunderstood characters of the year. Let’s assume for the moment that Erica always knew that Nina was a mentally unstable paranoid schizophrenic since the time when Nina was quite young. Sometimes in these situations, where a mother is caring for a mentally ill child the child’s life needs to be strictly regimented and controlled in order to maintain stability. This could be the reason why Erica feels the need to restrict Nina’s movements and social interactions. It explains why Erica is so protective over Nina as she receives her new, intense role as the white/black swan. It also explains the stuffed animals and other infantilizing elements that are peppered throughout Nina’s room and apartment. In this reading, receiving the new role is a precipitating incident in Nina’s life that causes her to fully lose her grip with reality and commence her final descent into madness. [Note: One psychologist has interpreted the film as depicting Nina's first psychotic break, which, in some ways, is better-supported by the film and allows for a richer reading of it.]
One of my colleagues, David, opined that my reading introduces superfluous elements into the film, when they really don’t need to be there. In reality, parents of talented children often push them to the breaking point, making ballet/football/soccer/baseball/piano/violin/whatever the entire focus of their existences. The complete control and iron fist with which Erica rules over Nina is common in these situations, as parents try to live out their dreams through their children. This is what Aronofsky was trying to communicate through the scenes with these two characters. No other explanation is needed.
After our podcast review of the film, I got several e-mails in support of my reading of the film. But perhaps one of the most fascinating e-mails I received was written by Kyle at istartmymorningssleeping. It introduces a whole new spin on things, and I’ve reproduced it below:
You guys never really touched on this, but I think Nina’s mom was molesting her.
Before Nina starts masturbating, she takes out the trash in that one scene. After she takes the trash out, she grabs the stick used to prop her door closed. As she walks back in the house though, the mom is standing there in what looks like a black lace dress (something more sexual than her usual wear) and ask Nina if she is ready for her yet. As Nina goes to her room, she tries to prop the door closed (which would make the mom not be able to get in), but her mom hears her and asks what the noise is. Nina, now scared, hides the stick, and the scene closes.
-I think this is the first time I actually picked up on it. After this point, I thought the point was completely obvious, and almost redundant. Talking with my friends after the movie, they didn’t seem to catch any of this and thought I was crazy. Anyways, the way her mom appeared in the dress in that scene, and saying “Are you ready for me Nina” should be proof enough that she is molesting Nina. What other motivation would Nina have to close her door with something that would prevent her mom from entering? This was all before she started masturbating, so I don’t think that that is a valid reason.
I’m not sure when it happens or what exactly was before, but there is a scene when Nina and her mom are fixing her shoes, and Nina begins to get defensive about something and her mom tells her to take off her shirt as she is approaching her. This is one of the weaker points in this argument, but just the way the mom yells at her too isn’t in a “let me see whats on your back kind of way”. Right after this happens, the doorbell rings and Lily is at the door. At first, Nina’s mom answers the door, not allowing Nina to even see who is at the door (why would she do this if she wasn’t planning on doing something to Nina?) but then Nina runs towards the door and finds out it was Lily. She steps out into the hall with Lily to talk, but while they do, her mom persists that she come back inside for dinner. Dinner was not being served when Nina left to go see who was at the door, so her mom was obviously trying to drag her back in to do something to her.
There is a scene with Nina in the tub and she is started when she goes under water and sees blood, and then opens her eyes to see her mom on top of her. but then gets out of the water and nobody is there. While all this was hallucination, I think it’s very symbolic in the fact that Nina never feels fully closed away from her mom. I also think it is important that her mom would be the person to show up when she starts masturbating in the tub. (I do realize, from my memory, that there were other faces that were looking at her in the water, but her mom’s was definitely the one she got out of the tub to.
Before I say the most defining evidence behind her mom’s molestation, there is a scene in which tomas is talking to Nina about sex inside his apartment. he asks her if she enjoys sex, and she seems extremely timid about answering the question. I know it can be taken lots of different ways, but I think it’s important to note here that Nina isn’t having sex with any men at the time, and that if her mom was molesting her, that was the only action she was getting, meaning that she probably didn’t necessarily enjoy it.
[Editor's note: I think Reasons 3 and 4, and parts of Reason 2 are pretty thin]
So this is where I was absolutely sure that her mom was molesting her. After the late night outing with lilly, Nina and her come back to the apartment. When Nina’s mom starts to get mad at Nina for being out, she slaps her, an act that someone like lily would have taken offense to and probably helped Nina out of the house. instead, Lily lets Nina drag her to her room, where the sex scene commences behind a (supposedly) locked door in Nina’s room. Throughout this scene, we see the girl performing oral sex on Nina change from Lily to a darker version of Nina, and back to Lily. However, once lily sits up she says something along the lines of “my sweet girl”. Given how the movie very much made the user tie that phrase to Nina’s mom, and the fact that there is no way Lily would know that phrase (unless by utter chance, which is unlikely, given as how its used throughout the film), I immediately thought of the possibility of this person being her mom. And my thoughts were confirmed a second later. Once Lily says “sweet girl”, the camera cuts to Nina’s face, full of suprise, and then back to the woman on top of Nina, who, right before the camera cuts away, is her mom.
Now my friends swear up and down that they never saw the mom in the sex scene, but I swear up and down that she was indeed the last version of the person on top Nina and the one the camera spends the least time on. My theory then is that, coming home, still high from rolling, Nina’s mom accosts her in her state and has sex with her. However because of her state, Nina is more responsive than usual because she is imagining that she is with Lily (it is later revealed that Lily never came home with Nina). That’s why the shot of the mom on top of Nina is one of the mom smiling before she continues oral sex with Nina.
It should also be noted here that when Nina wakes up in the morning, the sheets are disheveled and on the floor, and the door is not barred by the stick, suggesting that a sex act did occur, and someone could get in the room (the door was open). Also, when leaving the house in a hurry after she wakes up, the mom is seen sitting on a bench in their living room looking very grave and solemn. There is never another situation like this, and I think it’s because the mom realized the state Nina was in and took advantage of her anyways and felt bad about doing so.
[Further Editor's Note: Many people in the comments have evidently done some freeze-framing action on this scene and point out that Erica's face is nowhere to be found on Lily's body.]
Just the other general weirdness with the mom. Licking the cake off her finger, how her mom never seemed satisfied with herself (so maybe wanted to be with someone who strove for something perfect, so that she could have something perfect). The time when Nina said that she could undress herself, but her mom did it anyways. Basically, Nina’s mom cared about making Nina as perfect as possible for herself as Nina cared about making herself perfect.
I was honestly surprised when none of my friends held the same view in something I thought was totally obvious, but I do hope someone can back me up here.
Of course, the biggest argument against any of these readings is that the film is not terribly subtle about many of its other elements; thus, why would Aronofsky introduce something like a molestation subplot that most of the audience won’t even pick up on? I actually agree with this rationalization, although there are certain elements of the film that still make me wonder.
I really enjoyed Black Swan and I also enjoy the fact that it offers up so many possible interpretations within these twisted relationships. What do you think of the interpretations and theories above? Do you have your own? Feel free to share them in the comments.