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I recently saw Black Swan, the much acclaimed thriller starring Natalie Portman as a ballerina whose sense of self undergoes a dramatic collapse under the pressure of her elevation to prima donna in a production of Swan Lake.

Overall, I will be looking at the film as an interesting portrayal of a young woman driven by a narcissistic injury. In particular, I’m interested in the film’s potential for creating compassion for its main character. I feel this offers an emotional way in to feeling warmth towards what is often one of the more difficulty human issues to empathise with.

That said, the film is decidely Hollywood with smarts rather than Art House, so ends up caught up more with its own image than with an in-depth exploration of its content… all of which actually serves to make it ironically suitable as a case study in narcissistic injury.

I’ll be reviewing this with the assumption you haven’t seen it so as to avoid spoilers.

Nina as Narcissus

The driving force for the plot is protagonist Nina’s burning ambition to be the Swan Queen in her company’s production of Swan Lake. The entire film revolves around this ambition, giving rise to two important effects: firstly, there is no development of any other character in the film beyond what is necessary for developing the character of Nina. Secondly, Nina undergoes no character development beyond what is necessary for developing her role as Swan Queen.

On the one hand, that could just mean this is a poorly developed, one-dimensional thriller featuring Natalie Portman in interesting face paint and an opportunity for some gratuitous sexualisation. However, watching the film through my gestalt-therapy-tinted spectacles, I felt this was entirely appropriate to any presentation of a character driven by narcissistic injury (although the gratuitous sexualisation was indeed gratuitous).

I think issues around narcissism can be greatly misunderstood, and the term can end up used in a persecutory way. There is a beautiful paradox in attempting to empathise with someone who has little capacity for empathy. Consider that empathy is ultimately about attuning to someone else’s emotional experience. Counsellors and psychotherapists need to develop their ability to empathise with their clients. So imagine attempting to attune to the emotional experience of not being able to attune to the emotional experience of another. It’s the kind of paradox that deserves its own name.

The essence of narcissistic injury is this: a person naturally grows their own sense of who they are, and seeks love and approval from important others. The narcissistic injury occurs when the important others attack that home-grown sense of self, and demand that an external standard be achieved instead. So, natural sense of self is rejected as sub-standard; external sense of what self should be is imposed.

Consequently, the narcissistic injury drives a perfectionism that is un-natural (because it doesn’t actually fit with what the person wants ‘in their heart of hearts’), and can never be satisfied (because the external standard is alien, so any success can’t truly be felt as belonging to self).

Remember, in the Greek myth, the beautiful young man Narcissus is cursed by the Gods to fall in love with his own reflection; but he doesn’t know he is in love with his reflection, he takes his reflection to be another person. That is the tragedy of narcissistically driven ambition; the person who is so driven doesn’t realise they are chasing their own reflection, which they are doomed never to attain, however successful they are.

Clearly, there is simply no room for the emotional reality of other people in the midst of this psychic drama, hence the limitations in the person’s capacity for empathy. The only purpose for other people in the midst of this drama is to provide context.

Applied to Nina, her injury is clear; she needs to be the Swan Queen to feel worthwhile because, in her narcissistically driven emotional reality, there are only two categories: perfection and worthlessness. Incidentally, this dichotomy of perfection and worthlessness plays itself out well between Nina and Beth; the former’s star rising as the latter’s descends.

The influence of Nina’s mother sits heavily in the background, and it is striking that the film doesn’t make an overly big deal out of this. It is simply presented as the way things are, meaning that the full impact and implications of Nina’s homelife aren’t over played.

Some descriptions of the film describe a dramatic stand-off between Nina and Lily, making much of the contrast of Nina perfectly embodying the white swan, Lily the black swan. Nina’s struggle is to grow her sense of the black swan, the (re)discovery and assimilation of all the shadow aspects of her self she’s had to disown to stay true to her ballet ambitions.

However, whilst Lily does loom large in Nina’s psychic life, the actual character of Lily is not developed beyond her role of the new, rocky, bad girl in the company. The point being, Lily’s relevance to the film is solely as Nina’s largely imagined adversary. I’d advise holding in mind a distinction between Lily as Nina sees her, and Lily as a character in her own right; the two are very different.

There are no characters, even those whose approval Nina is seeking that have an effective existence independently of Nina. Consider that as an emotional reality; one in which people only exist in the context of your own goals. That is part of the trap of narcissistic relating; Nina only ever relates to her own reflection, never the actual people she meets. That is true not only of the other girls in the company, but also director Thomas, and Nina’s mother; the two people whose approval Nina so desperately seeks.

Consequently, it isn’t possible for Nina to receive human nourishment because at no point is she in contact with another person; she relates only to her own reflection. And reflection is a great way of explaining what happens when we project unwanted aspects of ourselves onto others; the other becomes a pool of water, upon the surface of which we see something of ourselves without recognising it as such. In a sense, all projection could be considered Narcissistic.

The feeling tone of the film as I experienced it was one of tightly wound ambition set against a cold and undeveloped background. I had a knot in my stomach most of the way through the film, feeling very tense during any kind of action phase, and very empty in the absence of action. I like to live through the films I watch, entering into contact with them as a special and externalised kind of dream. I’m used to Hollywood films being drenched with over-sentimentalised emotion that sits heavily in my gut. Black Swan felt largely devoid of sentiment; only ambition wound tightly around an emotionally empty core.

Having experienced that, I feel more able to weep for Narcissus; trapped as he is in a world of his own reflections, driven further and further into isolation by his need to attain perfection.

The emotional conclusion of that process is given dramatic voice in the climax of Black Swan.

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