Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Black Swan and the terror of femininity

Last night, after a long conversation with a friend of mine, I finally realized why I came out of Black Swan feeling frustrated, rather than pleased. On the surface, Aronofsky's latest is a film I should enjoy -- it melds the real with the hyperreal, features excellent performances and beautiful art design, and is a film about the horrors of being female, represented by that most feminine of creatures, the ballerina.

Or is it? After the first half of the film, I was relatively convinced that I was watching a horror movie about the terrors of femininity; by the final third I realized that was not the film I was watching at all. All of the archetypes were there--the lecherous mentor, the beautiful rival, the overbearing Freudian mother, the aging diva. Many of the motifs of a threatening womanhood were there too. A syrupy pink bedroom, the smothering presence of mirrors. Injured feet and toes, references to and representations of self-harm. All in service of that most perfect of feminine icons: the ballerina.

The early parts of the film seem to support this interpretation. Nina (Natalie Porman) is a young woman--how old exactly, we have no idea--who longs for the part of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake. We have no clear idea about why she wants this role; she seems to have no artistic impulses to speak of, and beyond the pressure of her mother and the fact that every young ballerina in the world wants to be the Swan Queen, Nina's desire for the part has no clear motivation. This is not a failure on Portman's part. The character has clearly been designed to be empty of the idiosyncratic motivations that would make her a real person. She is, instead, The Ballerina, the ultimate symbold of controlled, naive, feminine perfection.

Aronofsky's film has been criticized in some circles for being sexist. The story of a naive girl who just needs to find her sexuality so she doesn't become a frigid failure like her mother is not a particularly empowering one, to be sure. In its defense, however, Black Swan is clearly a story filled with archetypes. That we are not to take these characters seriously as real, fragile human beings is clear from the start. Black Swan is not fundamentally about Nina, as a character. It is about The Ballerina, as a symbol. The question, then, is what does the ballerina represent? If Black Swan is a parable, what is the moral?

Despite being a film that makes use of so many of the tools of feminine terror, this is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Nina's confrontations--with her sexuality, in the form of her choreographer and her rival, and with her womanhood, embodied in her mother and Winona Ryder's prima ballerina well past her prime--are the archetypal confrontations of womanhood. That Black Swan is a primarily a horror movie does not detract from this. The body horror central to the film's artistic direction points towards female embodiment. There are lingering camera shots on damaged or deformed toes and feet; the physical sacrifice Nina makes to become the perfect ballerina parallels the difficulties inherent in wearing high heels to become the perfect woman. Mirrors are everywhere in the film, and always oppressive. They reveal error and digust, rather than beauty.

Most salient, in my eyes, was the repeated reference to self-injury. It is established early on that Nina has strange cuts on her shoulders, from whence her black wings will eventually emerge. But the conceit of the film is that these cuts could have been caused by Nina's propensity to scratch herself. Her mother mentions this multiple times, and is even portrayed  as having developed strategies to deal with it. Much of the early body horror in the film is obsessively focused on nails and cuticles, areas of the female body particularly subject to self-harm. As the tension around Nina builds--she is sexually harassed by her mentor, repressed by her mother, and jealous of her more openly sexualized rival--the scratches worsen. Here is a woman confronted by the terrors of womanhood, terrors written on her body in places and styles traditionally associated with feminine horror.

At a certain point in the movie, Nina, having recently overcome her sexual reticence, is seated alone on a subway, across from an old man. As he watches her, he licks his lips lasciviously and begins to masturbate while they travel. Nina barely movies. What purpose does this sequence have, if not to represent the ultimate fear that comes with femininity: that you will be trapped in an inescapable space with someone who sees you only as a body to use and desire?

So where does this leave us, as we walk out of the theater? In the end, Black Swan is a frustrating experiment in genre and in theme; it squanders its opportunity to be a genuinely terrifying film about the anxieties of femininity, choosing instead to be a rather mediocre horror movie that, by the end, has descended into camp. Aronofsky's technical achievements are remarkable, the performances beautiful, and the art direction extremely strong in developing the theme laid out. The problem with Black Swan is that it chose the wrong theme, and, in doing so, missed its chance the achieve something truly, deeply, and magnificently horrifying.

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