Saturday, January 29, 2011

Black Swan Theory

The Ballet and The Body

Black Swan isn’t a film about ballet. It’s a film about identity under threat, and the subsequent descent into madness that’s inextricably linked with the female body. It is, first and foremost, a retelling of the story ‘Swan Lake’. The ballet aspect is useful to Aronofsky because it insists upon an extreme, exaggerated body: dance naturally turns the body into ‘spectacle’ – removing it from reality and placing it instantly into the realms of fantasy. Once removed from the realm of the real, the audience is naturally more receptive to any further layers of the fantastic layered upon the film by the director.  

Aronofsky is exploring two extremes of the human body. At one end of the line is the inflated male – the pumped up extreme ‘Masculine’ of The Wrestler. At the other end is the sucked in, vacuum-packed female, all excesses squeezed out – the ‘Feminine’ at its thinnest and most extreme, in Black Swan.

All the dark internal juices that have been squeezed out of the central character, Nina, are unleashed on her external world: once outside the body, they are out of her control. All that (sexual) darkness, that amoral 'id' seeking immediate gratification, cannot be contained within her overly ‘perfected’ body. Once released, it comes back to haunt her, hellbent on exacting its revenge upon the body that would not make room for it.

The Double

In Black Swan Aronofsky merges ideas of the mirror image with ideas about Dostoevsky’s ‘The Double’ – a cited influence. Nina sees around her what she thinks are versions of herself – darker, more sexual doppelgangers. She knows she must become those versions in order to play the role of the black swan, in addition to the role of the white swan, in her ballet company’s forthcoming recital of ‘Swan Lake’.

Aronofsky exploits the theme of ‘the double’ to its fullest, for the versions and doubles Nina sees are not always her spitting-image. Sometimes they look like who she might become in the future: the now redundant prima ballerina, Beth. 

 Sometimes they are another future self – the de-sexed self she will turn into if the white, pure, swan wins out over the black: her mother. 

 Sometimes the visions are of her closest adversary – the self she most desires (to be): the fresh new upstart, Lily. 

And sometimes those versions are there in her own reflection in the mirror, looking back at her – the replica, the image, threatening to become more real than the flesh-and-blood original. 

The Mirrors

Mirrors are expected to provide reassurance: they show us who we are – that we are separate beings, whole and intact. In art and film, mirrors display proof of identity and individual agency: according to Lacan, your reflection in the mirror shapes your ego – your independent ‘I’. This is why the mirror is a favourite device of psychological thrillers, because tampering with the mirror image will fundamentally distort and disturb a person’s sense of self. 

 If the reflection cannot be relied upon, then neither can the subject looking into it. If the image the subject sees is untrustworthy, then so is the subject’s own sense of self.  

Black Swan makes full use of the disturbances the mirror can cause: Black Swan’s mirrors fragment, distort, play tricks on, lie to, shatter, and ultimately stab, Nina. In fact it is, very literally, the mirror that kills her. 

 Swan Lake

The original fairy tale tells of a wicked magician called Von Rothbart, who conjures/fathers (depending on the version) the black swan, Odile, and sends her off to seduce Prince Siegfried. In true fairy-tale-logic, his seduction will secure the black swan’s triumph and supremacy, and the white swan’s hopeless impotence and inevitable demise.

The classic ‘Swan Lake’ ballet hides the ballet director behind the scenes – s/he is the invisible puppeteer. But Aronofsky’s retelling of the tale in Black Swan places the director, Leroy, centre-stage – he is a character in his own play. Doing so makes it clear that Leroy himself is also an embodiment of those two same opposing forces: he is both the white pure prince and the black impure magician, and the dancers playing those roles are simply projections of the contrasting aspects of Leroy’s own character. 

Differing from the classic ‘Swan Lake’, in Aronofsky’s version, no battle takes place between Siegfried and Von Rothburt: Leroy seems to have found a peace between the two sides within him and so they are not at war – a luxury denied Nina. Traditionally, sexuality in the male body rarely leads to madness. Sex is an acceptable, expected, characteristic of masculinity. By contrast, in the female body, sexuality is frequently portrayed as a dangerous, destructive element; and its containment an ongoing struggle.

In most art forms, sexual knowledge in a woman leads either to madness, death or to premature ageing: the penalty for letting the black swan win over the white is to be rendered ‘old’ at 39. 

For it would seem no young woman can possibly know herself and remain sane/young/virginal. The minute Nina touches herself, it is as if with a magic wand, because it ends instantly the suspended innocence so meticulously preserved by her mother.

In fairy tales, there is no grey. If white is touched by black, the stain is permanent and immovable. Virginity once lost is irretrievable. The hymen/white veil is the frail crinoline lace masking the infinite, unfathomable abyss. 

Once broken, innocence is lost to the void, and ambiguity, disorder and darkness leaks out. Its escape means the body is driven either to madness, to the prison of sexless, sterilised motherhood, or to death.

This descent ensues with terrifying speed: one minute beautiful swan, and the next, abandoned, forgotten, unattractive and old. In no time at all, Nina could wind up beautiful but insane and confined to the madhouse/hospital, or a dried-up mother/hag confined to her attic/NY apartment. Or dead.

And so the battle that takes place in Black Swan does so between the two conflicting sides of Nina. The ‘peace’ (or 'perfection', in Nina's language) that seems to exist indefinitely in the body of Leroy, apparently lasts somewhere around 10 seconds in Nina’s. The woman that encompasses both whiteness and darkness, purity and carnal knowledge, has a lifespan shorter than a fruit fly. For that brief ecstatic moment in time, Nina finds the perfection* she claims to have dedicated her life to seeking. I hope it was worth it.

Brilliantly executed, acted, and danced as Aronofsky’s Black Swan is – beautiful, breathtaking, and blissfully bizarre – it in fact offers little in the way of originality. Its contemporary, slick thrills and injection of hot lesbian sex masks an age-old, barely updated tale of the dangers associated with female sexual self-discovery. Matthew Bourne had something new to say about ‘Swan Lake’, but Aronofsky is less daring. The small alterations to the paradigmatic story are not subversive enough to make Black Swan any development on the classic ‘Swan Lake’. Underneath the blazing melodrama – and the impressively brazen excess of it all – Black Swan is the same old fairy tale in which the same old presentation of femininity performs the same old dying swan routine. 

*  Life doesn’t just imitate art – sometimes it changes it. Sometimes it even rewrites the endings of stories. In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the depressed heroine eventually chooses life – an ending that was to be undermined by the fact that its equally depressed author later chose, for herself, death. In Black Swan, I would argue something similar has happened. In defiance of Aronofsky’s punitive ending – the infertile female body driven to its death by the torment of sex dangled like a carrot-on-a-stick by the figurative male Other – that same body (Portman’s!) was resurrected: it chose sex, fertility, and filled out thanks to a healthy diet and a baby, having successfully seduced the real male Other. So you know where you can go stick your mirror-shard, Aronofsky! 

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