A look at the role mothers play in the downfall of their children in the films Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream.
I knew that something was amiss when I made a Freudian slip, and referred to Natalie Portman as “Natalie Portnoy.” How could I do Ms. Portman such a disservice, after she won a Golden Globe and an Oscar for her pained portrayal of a prima ballerina who self-mutilates, turns psychotic, and suicides in the final scene?
In Black Swan, Portman’s Nina emotes, in body and in mind, when she becomes the evil Odile. Black feathers sprout from her forearms as she transforms. The film’s special effects are as magical as the sorcerer’s spell in Tchaikovsky’s romantic era classic.
Portman starts the dance as Odette, the white swan. Only a prince can save her from her fate: from living as a swan by day and returning as a human form from dusk to dawn. But Odette is doomed to remain a swan forever, should her beloved betray her.
In the ballet, Odette leaps from a cliff, after learning that her prince is betrothed to Odile, the Black Swan and the sorcerer’s daughter. Since life imitates art, Portman’s Nina will take her own life before the curtains close, for Nina (Portman) gradually goes mad. As she looks at the dressing room mirror, she sees her reflection shift between her own body and the body of Lily (Mila Kunis), her dance competitor and her imaginary lesbian lover.
In frustration, she smashes the mirror, grabs a shard, and stabs a body with the broken glass. This move reminds us of the silent screen’s Student of Prague (1913), (1926)— psychoanalyst Otto Rank, who wrote about doppelgangers in Der Doppelganger (1914), elaborated on this famous mirror scene in his later book Art and Artist (1932).
Believing that she killed her competitor, Nina drags a limp, bleeding body into a closet, then charges on stage, costumed in black, and dances. The audience is enthralled, and can barely contain its applause. Nina rushes backstage, prepares for the final scene, and returns in her white tutu. As she dances, bright red blood seeps through a hole in this virginal white garb, as if she were just deflowered. With blood pouring out, she collapses.
Her mother sits in the orchestra, horrorstruck. Yet Mother was calm as she tried to sabotage her daughter and failed to awaken Nina for her debut. She called in sick for her instead.
So, where is the “Portnoy” connection in my slip of the tongue? The answer is obvious, for those who remember Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth’s searing novel from 1966, in which he wrote about Jewish mothers who were more overbearing than today’s “tiger mothers.” In Roth’s tale of Alexander Portnoy, a young man is psychologically maimed by his all-powerful, always-demanding mother. The story is told on his analyst’s couch.
In Black Swan, it is unclear if Barbara Hershey’s character is intended to be a “Jewish mother,” like Mrs. Portnoy. Yet, Hershey still reads “New York Jewish” because of her role in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). Portman herself is Israeli-born.
As for Black Swan family background, we know that Erica and Nina Sayers (Hershey and Portman) inhabit a sprawling old apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. It is wallpapered with what looks like seconds from the old Lower East Side. The wallpaper says 1,000 words. The palette is wrong. The patterns are out-dated. The colors are faded. The grayed-down pinks look like dust-laden leftovers from the 50s, when “powder pink” was the rage. The white wicker furniture of Nina’s childlike bedroom is covered with stuffed toys and ballerina music boxes that recollect Rumpelmayer’s Ice Cream Parlor.
The two women inhabit a world of their own. Barbara runs her hands over Natalie’s body, as if it were her own. The mole on Barbara’s face makes her look like the Wicked Witch, rather than an aged-out ballerina. Barbara rips the ego from her young, just as Natalie rips skin from her back, in a foreshadowing of the final bloody suicide scene.
Ten years earlier, director Daniel Aronofsky presented another miserable mother in Requiem for a Dream (2000). Ellyn Burstyn’s character in Requiem inhabits a world that is very different from the Sayers’ Lincoln Center lifestyle. Sara Goldfarb and son live in poverty-ridden Coney Island, once a Jewish enclave. Unlike Barbara, who is infuriatingly mean, Ellyn is maddeningly stupid. Ellyn’s Sara eventually goes mad herself.
Requiem revolves around Sara’s son, just as Swan revolves around Erica’s daughter. The son’s heroin addiction leads him to steal. He pawns his mother’s TV sets, one after another. The pawnshop owner warns Sara, reminding her that her appliances repeatedly disappear. Eventually, a different “appliance” does her in. It is her refrigerator, which talks to her, after she consumes amphetamine-based diet pills for months on end. Sara is hospitalized, where she encounters yet a third appliance: a shock therapy machine.
Her son, in the meantime, loses an arm to gangrene, the result of repeat infections from drug injections. His girlfriend, once an aspiring fashion designer, also gets addicted and ends up performing live sex shows in Times Square to support their habits.
Ellyn plays the same role in Requiem that she played in The Exorcist (1973). There, she was mother of a possessed child. In Requiem, her son is overtaken by a different demon: drugs. The mother in Black Swan is also a sorceress of sorts, like the magician who cast the spell on the swan maidens. Barbara cast a deadly spell on her daughter, and pushed her into the proverbial abyss. Not every story ends happily ever after.
Sharon Packer, MD is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry & Behavioral Science at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Her private practice is in Soho, NY. She is also the author of Dreams in Myth, Medicine, and Movies (2002), Movies and the Modern Psyche (2007), and Superheroes and Superegos: Analysing the Minds Behind the Masks (2010). Keep an eye out for her forthcoming book Sinister Psychiatrists in Cinema.