Essays · Movies

The Portrayal of OCD in ‘Black Swan’

Beyond its body horror and psychedelic visuals, the 2010 film tells a story of living with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Black Swan OCD Portman
Fox Searchlight
By  · Published on December 3rd, 2020

Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film Black Swan is often discussed for its portrayal of mental illness, particularly psychosis and potentially schizophrenia. The main character, Nina (Natalie Portman), has hallucinations of bodily transformations and images of a dark version of herself, which lend themselves to such an examination. However, this is more than just triggered psychosis; this is a story about a woman’s struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder and the desire for perfection.

Contrary to popular media portrayals, OCD is not just about cleanliness, organization, and counting. The disorder can manifest in a multitude of other ways, too, from repetitive intrusive thoughts to the constant fear that you will harm yourself or others. In Black Swan, Nina has both the typical and lesser-known manifestations of the disorder, creating a picture of what just one individual’s struggle with OCD looks like and how destructive it can be.

Being a ballerina goes hand-in-hand with obsession, from the need to be absolutely perfect to maintain a specific body type. Nina in particular thrives on routine to achieve what she believes is perfection and maintain careful control over her life. Her obsessive actions around achieving this goal are even noted by those around her, especially her director, Tomas (Vincent Cassel). He tells her, “In the four years I’ve been watching you, you work to get every move perfect, but I’ve never seen you lose yourself.”

Her obsessive desires lead to meticulous compulsions, which can be seen in a close-up sequence where she prepares her new ballet shoes. Quick, deliberate shots show Nina’s expert hand ripping out the soles, scoring the soles, and making sure they form to her feet. This process is a ritual, something that has well-defined steps that when followed will result in relief; she has done this one thing to get closer to the completion of her obsession. It is only a temporary relief, but it is what the brain needs to feel comfortable and stable.

Another one of her rituals involves a shrine of stolen objects from previous lead ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder). In a velvet bag, Nina has five items that she compulsively stole. She treats them with such care and arranges them in her dressing room in a perfect line, again like a shrine to perfection. She believes that if these items are put in the right places, she will achieve the same success as Beth and, as Nina says, “be perfect.” These continuous rituals and habits to make that happen illustrate Nina’s OCD and her grasp at control. 

Yet, her compulsions reveal a storm bubbling beneath the surface, a woman who is trying desperately to quiet her brain. As Nina begins to lose that control, her mind ventures into thoughts of self-harm as forms of self-flagellation. One of the main symptoms of OCD is experiencing intrusive thoughts that keep playing and playing in your head until you do something to prevent them. This can manifest as skin picking and nail biting compulsions, which is the case with Nina. Her small acts of self-harm quell her anxiety. 

The prime example is Nina scratching her shoulder blades raw. The behavior is shown as a nervous tic, similar to skin picking, that gives the mind something to focus on to beat away the loud voice of anxiety. But as her stress skyrockets, these scratches get progressively worse and begin to bleed. It is a destructive self-soothing mechanism that even her mother (Barbara Hershey) recognizes. She says to Nina, “you’ve been scratching yourself again, that disgusting habit.” She also even tells Nina that it’s because of all the pressure with Nina’s lead role as the Swan Queen. Oftentimes, these tics such as skin picking and nail biting manifest during times of stress as a way to ground oneself in reality. Between the visuals of the scratches and that verbal confirmation from her mother, this is one of the most explicit moments that highlight Nina’s own struggles with OCD.

But sometimes compulsions don’t dispel the thoughts, and Nina’s mind begins to dwell on the possibilities of really hurting herself. Nina’s nails are often shown broken and bleeding, from a split toenail to bleeding nail beds. These injuries, which at first seem real, are quickly shown to be mental images of Nina bringing harm to herself. These imagined acts of self-harm are done to quell guilt. In the bathroom, after she is officially announced as the Swan Queen, Nina envisions herself pulling back her cuticle skin all the way to her knuckle. She is so nervous around others and impressing them, that her mind drifts to peeling off her skin in reaction to the stress. As someone with OCD, I deeply identify with this moment as my own intrusive thoughts often include peeling off the skin on my hands. 

The visuals of intrusive thoughts can be conflated with psychosis and other mental illnesses because it is such a complex idea to conceptualize. But I believe that in showing moments of self-harm, only to then show nothing has happened, illustrate Nina’s own intrusive thoughts that are intensifying with each passing day.

With Nina’s death at the film’s end and her declaration of achieving perfection, this illustrates the extremes of the destructiveness of obsessive behaviors. According to the National Institutes of Health, those diagnosed with OCD have a high probability of contemplating and/or attempting suicide. While Nina’s death is more a product of her psychosis, her final lines about perfection punctuate a film that documents a woman with severe OCD and her obsessive-compulsive tendencies to achieve that by any means possible. 

Importantly, there is no one diagnosis that can truly be given to Nina. But in analyzing her everyday behaviors, her subtle routines, and moments of self-harm, actual or imagined, Nina is a fascinating and nuanced portrayal of living with OCD in times of massive stress. It is not just about perfection, but about punishment and constant anxiety. While her mental health is sensationalized for shocking and dazzling visuals, the quieter moments of solitude highlight the truth of OCD presented in Black Swan

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Mary Beth McAndrews thinks found footage is good and will fight you if you say otherwise. When she's not writing, she's searching for Mothman with her two cats. Follow her on Twitter @mbmcandrews. (She/Her)