Sunday, July 24, 2011

Character Study: Nina Sayers

In my continuing series of Character Study posts, here is an essay I wrote on Black Swan, titled "The Transfiguration of Nina Sayers," wherein I chart the rise and fall of Nina Sayers throughout the film.

Perfection is a dream chased by many, but only a few ever achieve it. More often than not, reaching that level of flawlessness requires a great sacrifice. In Black Swan, Nina Sayers, played by Natalie Portman, is a ballet dancer who strives for perfection. Her greatest desire is to be the prima ballerina and dance the part of the Swan Queen. However, realizing this dream requires Nina to transform herself from innocent girl-child to a sensual woman, and to make her own awful sacrifice to achieve perfection. This metamorphosis is completed in three stages: self-discovery, awakening, and transfiguration.

At the beginning of the film, Nina is a talented dancer with a lot of potential. Other characters, such as her mother, say that she is very good. But Nina doesn’t want to be just good; she wants to be perfect. She wants to dance the Swan Queen. When Beth, the company’s prima ballerina, is forced to retire, Nina and the other ballerinas see their chance.

Nina tries out for the part of Swan Queen, but her audition is spoiled by the abrupt entrance of Lily, Mila Kunis’ character. Lily is another very talented dancer and Nina perceives her as a rival for the role. Later, Nina visits Thomas to ask him to reconsider her for the part, but he refuses. He tells her she is ideal for the White Swan, but that she doesn’t have the passion and inner darkness required to play the Black Swan. Then, Thomas kisses her, forcing himself on her, until she bites him on the lip.

Before this moment, the audience sees that Nina is the vision of innocence. She still lives with her mother, who babies her. The walls of her room are painted pink and her bed is covered in stuffed animals. Nina is an adult woman, but the fact that she lives with her mother in what is probably her childhood room reveals that she is still coddled like a child. Her mother also calls her unceasingly. Presumably, her mother does this to protect her, but a bird cannot learn to fly if its mother never lets it out of its nest.

Even though Nina is awarded the part of the Swan Queen by Thomas, she is still unable to channel the wild spirit of the Black Swan. Thomas tells her that she is too “frigid” and that she needs to forget about perfectionism and to “lose herself.” There is a certain irony that in order to reach perfection, Nina must stop obsessing about perfection and let herself loose.

It is in these moments with Thomas that Nina discovers the darker nature she has hidden within herself. While practicing alone with Nina, Thomas forces himself on her again. He does all of this in an attempt to rouse the Black Swan that he knows lives inside her. In turn, Nina discovers that she isn’t a little girl, despite what her mother might think. She is a grown woman with her own sexual desires and needs. As if to guide her along on her road of self-discovery, Thomas is the one to suggest that she masturbate.

Nina’s exploration of her own body is cut short, however, by her mother. Though this scene is darkly humorous, it also exemplifies how much Nina’s mother dominates her life. But this doesn’t stop Nina; she is already too far along the path to slow the awakening of her Black Swan.

In Swan Lake, there is Odette, the White Swan, and Odile, the Black Swan. They are polar opposites of each other. In Black Swan, Lily is set up as Nina’s opposite, and, though they contrast in many ways, Nina’s actual doppelganger is herself. It can be said that Nina is Odette and that her evil twin is Odile, both swans in the body of one person.

Nina’s awakening is the emerging of Odile from her repressed slumber. The Black Swan, who represents unfettered passion and lust, had been kept locked away. This repression, carried out by both Nina’s mother, has kept Nina in her perpetual state of innocence. It also keeps her from truly growing. She needs the Black Swan if she ever hopes to achieve perfection.

Lily, as a Black Swan herself, serves as one of the catalysts that initiates Nina’s dark awakening. She befriends Nina, inviting her to come out with her and, by doing so, inviting her to rebel against her mother. This rebellion is part of her awakening. To become the Black Swan, Nina needs to break away from her mother and indeed she does so. Despite her mother’s insistent calling, Nina never answers her phone and instead allows herself to lose control, with the help of a little Ecstasy.

When she returns, Nina has a fight with her mother and, for the second time in the film, defies her wishes by taking “Lily” into her room and barricading the door. Nina spends a lustful night with “Lily,” making love to her, though later, she discovers that it was all a hallucination. However, this episode echoes Thomas’ earlier suggestion that Nina “play with herself.” At last, Nina has permitted the Black Swan to take over, submitting to her desires. It cannot be a coincidence that Nina fantasized about Lily, a Black Swan, when she dreamed the experience. It wasn’t Lily she was attracted to, but to Odile, the Black Swan within.

Odile has fully awakened when Nina is confronted by her mother after Nina’s increasingly erratic behavior. During this sequence, Nina smashes her mother’s hand in the door, breaking it, before having a violent hallucination and knocking herself out. When she wakes, she discovers that her mother has confined her to her room and called the ballet company, telling them that Nina wasn’t feeling well. But the Black Swan in Nina wouldn’t let her mother steal her big night from her and she fought back, grabbing her mother’s broken hand to force her to let her out.

Nina’s awakening was complete and her transfiguration already begun. In religious terms, a transfiguration is a person’s assumption of “momentary divine radiance.” Webster defines it as “an exalting, glorifying, or spiritual change.” In the Christian Bible, Jesus of Nazareth is transfigured atop a mountain, becoming more than a mortal man. The Transfiguration of Jesus is the moment when he is called “Son” by God and is considered a vision of the perfection of life in Heaven.

Similarly, Nina is transfigured by her dance into the Black Swan. Throughout the whole film, Nina has had persistent hallucinations. She’s had delusions of scales rippling across her body, like the skin of a swan. In another hallucination, she plucked a black feather from the rash on her back. One of her more violent ones had her being physically transformed into a swan, her knees inverting and her eyes turning red. Though these hallucinations are highly disturbing and can lead the audience to question Nina’s sanity, it is important to realize that they are but brief visions of the perfection that Nina is about to achieve.

Backstage on opening night, Nina has been replaced by Lily, but Nina, unveiling the confidence the Black Swan has given her, convinces Thomas to give her the stage. But her initial screw-ups as the White Swan in the opening act cause “Lily” to go to Nina’s changing room and taunt her. They fight and, in the ensuing struggle, “Lily” morphs into a double of Nina, whom Nina stabs with the broken shard of a mirror. This struggle was the final step of Nina’s transfiguration. She has defeated her doppelganger and claimed the title of Black Swan.

Onstage, as the Black Swan, Nina dances as she has never danced before, with a wild wantonness that captivates and entrances the audience. Throughout the dance, the tips of black feathers appear on her arms, growing more prominent the deeper into the dance she goes. Finally, the ballet culminates with Nina, her outstretched arms changed to black-feathered wings, mirroring Jesus on the cross, basking in the standing ovation of the crowd. This is her moment of divine radiance, of perfection, the climax of her transfiguration.

But this triumph was not without sacrifice. When Nina returns to her changing room to become the White Swan, she discovers that it was not Lily that she had stabbed. She pulls the shard of glass out from her own abdomen. Nina had stabbed herself in a hallucination, metaphorically killing the old Nina, the innocent White Swan, to become the Black Swan. That was the cost, her great sacrifice for perfection. Jesus, the innocent Lamb, sacrificed himself on the cross so that man could go to heaven, in other words, reach perfection. Likewise, Nina Sayers sacrificed her own innocence to achieve perfection in her dance.

Nina’s metamorphosis, from girl to woman, was complete, but at the cost of her sanity and her life. To reach complete excellence, she gave up herself. Her final words as she laid bleeding on the stage reveal her absolute obsession with perfection: “Perfect – It was perfect.” These words also echo Christ’s last words on the cross, according to Luke 23:43, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” And what is Paradise but utter perfection?


  1. i liked it a lot!

  2. WTF has this got to do with Jesus

  3. Wow ! I thoroughly enjoyed your sharp analysis of Black Swan thank you so much for sharing this, it was very illuminating ��