Contains non-specific spoilers.
Whoa, first post since June! It seems fitting that I would finally decide to get back into blogging with a film that is in many ways a sister to the one I left off with back in the summer, The Piano Teacher. Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a film that every critic I have read cannot resist comparing to other films: the oeuvres of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, Carrie, Suspiria, The Red Shoes, Repulsion, All About Eve, and Aronofsky’s own prior film The Wrestler, a comparison which the director himself wants to be drawn. Name-dropping similar films might be a lazy rhetorical tactic for a critic – a method of sidestepping actual writing – but in this case, Black Swan is making its influences so clear that they seem intrinsic to understanding what it’s going for. There is a long-standing tradition, starting in literature and extending to film, that imagines madness or death as the only respite of women caught in a struggle to define themselves (frequently as artists) in an oppressively patriarchal world that doesn’t value their voices. As far as literature goes, think Anna Karenina, The Yellow Wallpaper, The Awakening, Madame Bovary, and The House of Mirth. These early classics of feminist fiction challenged the patriarchal order of upper-class European and American society, but in the times they were written, there was nowhere for their heroines to go but deep into the mind or into the ocean – there was no way out that wasn’t too far.
This is a highly compelling theme and one can see why it’s persisted into the modern era, even as society moves closer to equality for men and women (although patriarchy certainly still exists in spades, there are many more choices for women today). Films like The Red Shoes and The Piano Teacher told this story, of the struggle of an artist to make her own decisions in a male-dominated world, with an equally bleak outlook. However, in Jane Campion’s The Piano, the trope is turned on its head with the heroine deciding to take ownership of her sexuality and the inner turmoil that boils up from within and becomes her art. She decides, fully and passionately, to live. Campion’s film can’t be marked as an optimistic ball of sunshine that ignores the realities for women who find themselves unable or unwilling to conform to society’s expectations of them, but rather it takes the typical ending and spins it progressively, seeing that something else exists besides madness and death. Black Swan takes several steps backwards.
The protagonist of Black Swan, Nina Sayres, is a long-standing member of a prestigious ballet company who has not been featured as much as she feels she deserves. She lives with her mother, a domineering former ballerina who controls Nina’s choices with the intent of keeping her away from anything that might distract her from her career. In this household, intimacy and connection only exist to serve the ballet. There is no love, just pursuit of the art. These characters are immediately familiar and Aronofsky assumes that by showing us the brutal body horrors of the ballet world, we will understand how much internal sacrifice is also taking place in order to achieve greatness in the field – no character development needed. The most immediate problem is that Nina is automatically presented as so fragile that it’s a complete wonder she even made it this far in such a competitive field. Everyone in her life dominates her and she spends the duration of most of the film with the sheen of half-repressed tears in her eyes and a constant tremble in her lip. She refuses to speak to anyone truthfully or openly, and cares for nothing and no one but the pursuit of “perfection” in her dancing.
When the imperious and highly sexual director of the company casts her in the dual role of the White Swan and the Black Swan, it almost seems like a joke, because she is so obviously too fragile to handle the pressure of the leading role. The justification for her casting is given with a glimpse into her obsession with small violence and fierce protection of her own body (she is the only one allowed to inflict pain or pleasure to herself). The director believes that if Nina gets in touch with her sexuality, she will be able to embody the passion, lust, and abandon needed to portray the Black Swan onstage. He would prefer it if she takes that sexual journey with him, but it becomes clear that the only person she can get off to is herself. Swan Lake is, at heart, a love story, but Nina has no time for love. The only thing of importance in her perspective is ballet, but she seems equally afraid of it, and we never get to feel why her devotion to it would light her on fire enough to start to descend into madness when the pressure of the role and the conniving members of her company become too much for her to handle.
No stakes are raised as the pressure mounts for Nina, because the audience knows where this is going. Punishingly literal symbolism is layered on in each image, and there is plenty of foreshadowing that lets us know that Nina’s arc is inseparable from the arc of the characters she’s playing. With Nina’s only interest being herself, why should the audience be invested in her downfall? Natalie Portman makes a very strong case for getting the audience to care about her character with her absolutely dedicated performance. She has clearly punished her own body in order to fit into the mold of an ideal ballerina, which creates a rather interesting metafictional dynamic. Aronofsky wants to create a sympathetic portrait of ballerinas with body image issues and self-destructive tendencies that stem from patriarchal pressure, but in order to do so, he had to give his actresses the same patriarchal pressure and body image issues. As an auteur he’s clearly obsessed with the physical aspects of performance and extracting every last ounce of stamina and willpower from his performers in order to achieve the perfect look for the character. There’s something extremely interesting, and more than a little disturbing, about making a film meant to expose the brutal body horrors of one art form, that requires those brutal body horrors to actually take place within the other art form.
While this may seem like a digression, I think it’s important to define Black Swan‘s place in Aronofsky’s oeuvre and how he feels about his protagonist in order to illuminate its thematic aspirations. In The Wrestler he was doing much of the same thing with Mickey Rourke, asking the actor to go through grueling physical ordeals to reflect the challenges of a character who lives in a world that enjoys watching people suffer. In that case, though, Randy “The Ram” was a man trying to do the right thing, trying to make connections with others, and trying to make his place in the world, not just as a performer, but a father, a lover, and friend – he just kept hitting walls, interior and exterior. Nina isn’t trying to be anything but a performer. Her narcissism is all-consuming, so much that it destroys her, but the approach to watching her fall isn’t dramatic in its inevitability, it’s overblown and painful. The visions she begins to experience start out as prosaic, intriguing projections of her inner identity struggle, but they eventually morph into cinematic conventions and effects that don’t seem to reflect her inner madness, but rather the director wanting to throw in every idea he had for making the film a “mind-fuck.” In the last act, the absurdity has been ratcheted up so high the audience has completely lost track of Nina and what she’s feeling. It’s turned into a horror film, but I’m not sure that approach served the character or left the audience with anything more than a visceral thrill, when poignancy and thematic weight could have been possible. Instead we get a story that’s completely old-fashioned and offers nothing new in its attempt to criticize repression and domination, with provocative sexual scenes, twisted violence, and grotesque FX meant to make it feel fresh. The film does feature many great technical achievements, but they seem piled on to cover up contempt for the characters and the stench of shallow melodrama disguised as high art.