Yes, there is the now overused gimmick in both Aronofsky’s Black Swan and Fincher’s Fight Club, the one where two seemingly separate characters are actually one, in some shape or form. And, yes, a maelstrom of violence circles this second, shadow self. But, for all intents and purposes, this is about as far as one can relate Black Swan to Fight Club.
In literature, the dual self is nothing new. Fincher – or, really, the author of The Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk – happened to give it a fully contemporary, socially relevant context that garned his book a good deal of attention and the movie a loyal following. Other stories of the dual character populate the decades and centuries, from just about any superhero comic (where superheroes have varying control or knowledge of their superhero side) to Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to, implicitly, the widely used template of the hero’s journey that happens to be used in one of the earliest recorded texts, The Epic of Gilgamesh (and this template also happens to echo the fascistic event where one learns his real self through being compelled into action; action and violence bring out one’s hidden abilities and hidden self with all its closeted pain and fear). Additionally, it was first literature that prompted Freud into developing his broadly accepted theory of the unconscious. In short, a shadow, hidden self is a motif so old that it seems to suggest that this feature is an innate quality of the human machine and a continual site of curiosity and terror.
What comprises this hidden self in a psychoanalytic context, to put it too simply, is repressed desire. Fight Club and Black Swan read very easily in this sense: the narrator’s intense desire for a different life, to be a different person who lives a vibrant, meaningful, sex-filled life creates his alter ego, Tyler Durden. Black Swan’s Nina is perfectly set in a Freudian psychic structure with the oppressive authoritative figure, her mother, as the super-ego, defining what Nina is to want and not want, and Nina’s repressed sexual desire fomenting and eventually spilling out violently into her waking life. A great piece of support for this apparent structuring is the masturbation scene.
Here, Nina greenly starts touching herself and quickly arches and writhes in pleasure, only for this pleasure to be smashed to a halt by the sudden sight of her sleeping mother in her room. Nina’s struggle is overcoming this weighty, sex-forbidding psychological force and at once drawing out and satisfying her repressed desire – the Black Swan.
Beside their mediums (dance and sport-fighting), there is one major differences between these two dramas in terms of their shadow selves: Nina desperately seeks to draw out her shadow self, and the narrator frantically tries to stop his shadow self.
That one character tries to push away and the other bring out the hidden self makes for a huge emotional difference in these dramas. It feels very different to forbid something that one wants (the familiar feeling of re-suppressing) as opposed to permitting forbidden desire and breaking down one’s ethical code and identity (pushing exposure to the point of integration, a new self). In this sense, the narrator is the child who breaks the rules but is then terrified over what he’s done and so does his best to re-establish the status quo; he re-suppresses Durden and finally kills him.
Nina’s pursuit, though, has a very different effect because she does not shirk away from the Black Swan. Instead, she pursues it fiercely. This is the terror of the vanishing self, and, indeed, Nina fully commits to killing her old self with the chilling tag line from the Black Swan ego, “Now it’s my turn!” The equivalent here would be Durden killing the narrator. So, we feel terror in Nina’s bloodied changeroom, but we feel some relief when we see Durden die.
Secondly, I hardly need to say it, Fight Club is a political and social commentary whereas Black Swan is claustrophobically personal. The compositions of Durden and the Black Swan are quite different. Durden is a revolutionary attacking consumer culture and trying to undo its psychological damage whereas the Black Swan is almost totally sexual in nature, obviously. We are watching two very different shadow sides.
Conflating these two fine films too closely in terms of their alter egos is, to echo the great Christian Bale, amateur.