Elevate Difference

Black Swan

The hype had me prepared for Black Swan to be a disturbing and gory movie. But the truth of it is this: even if you’re squeamish, like me, there’s nothing in the film you can’t look at… out of context.

Context is the name of the game for director Darren Aronofsky, in this and his previous films. Aronofsky gives viewers rich, often confusing imagery—the back of someone’s head, for instance; a favorite shot he's borrowed from Hitchcock, Van Sant, and others—and then leaves it up to our minds to interpret his meaning. Example: a physical wound means one thing if it’s accidentally caused, another if it’s created by an external person, and still something else if self-inflicted. But if you only see the wound without its frame of reference, it means nothing beyond blood and guts.

Some viewers find this equivocating pretentious and sadistic, while others enjoy the challenge. With Black Swan, Aronofsky has achieved the ultimate cinematic ambiguity: his film will have us talking about it for years, trying to make heads or tails of what’s really going on with Nina the ballerina (Natalie Portman).

The trailer gives us the narrative framework (no spoilers ahead): Nina is a dedicated dancer who assumes the lead role in Swan Lake, only to end up in torment as she tries to shed her virginal white swan persona in favor of the darker, sensual black swan. Are her demons real or imagined? Can she play both parts, good and evil? Will she dance herself to death, or find fame and glory? Black Swan is a thriller racing to answer these questions. But saying it’s a movie about Swan Lake, or even about ballet in general, is like saying that Swan Lake is about birds.

When the curtain came down, so to speak, I wasn’t disturbed or scared. Instead, I felt mildly exhilarated and happy to go home to a foot massage from my husband. Later that night, however, I tossed and turned to terrifying dreams. I saw Nina’s mother’s icy stare. I dreamed of broken, twisted limbs and skin tearing from my body. The next morning, I received an email from a girlfriend with whom I’d seen the film: she claimed to be having “out of body sensations." What happened to us? How could we have endured viewing the film itself with no terror, only to wind up feeling dizzy and insecure later on? But that’s probably the point, right?

Black Swan transcends its obvious message of self-sacrifice for the sake of art and makes a wider statement about sexuality: it points out that women are intraculturally conditioned to sacrifice their own pleasure in favor of male gratification. We encourage and adopt a meme of female frigidity, forcing young girls to think of their virginity as something fragile, even breakable. We set up an expectation in young women that virginity and subsequent self-sacrifice can result in the “perfect” first time. (That’s according to me. You want a different conclusion? Ask a different critic.)

A review by Danusha Goska on the Internet Movie Database suggests Black Swan “tells us that women are fragile and neurotic and if they do anything remarkable it makes them crazy.” I went looking for this kind of reaction, and I liked finding that viewers are recognizing misogyny in the film. But to say that the filmmakers are sexists is inaccurate; in actuality, they’re pointing to existing rigid demands for women to model ourselves after feminine archetypes. True, Portman and costar Mila Kunis did reportedly lose an enormous amount of weight for their roles as skinny, somewhat masochistic dancers (about 20 lbs. each off already tiny bodies). But the question is: why are ballet dancers skinny, not why are actresses who play ballet dancers skinny?

One of the reasons I braved the supposed gore was because I wanted to gawk at pin thin bodies on screen. Instead of assuming an air of superiority to this trend, however, I found myself envying their ability to achieve a desired aesthetic. (Talk about social and cultural memes: women are supposed to be frigid and skinny, it would seem. And even this feminist, with all of her bravado, can’t get rid of a desire to be outwardly beautiful and adored.)

Okay, now comes the part when I tell you whether or not I recommend the film. I do. Black Swan is beautiful to look at and, at times, campy fun, but only fun for those who don’t mind a few days of psychological indigestion for which there may be no effective antacid.

Written by: Rachel Moehl, January 8th 2011

Great review! I'm not sure if I want to see the film or not--I might just wait till it comes out on DVD. But I really like your analysis and the way you personalized it.

You make good points regarding the psychological aftermath of the film, as well as the differentiation regarding whether "filmmakers are sexist for making films that depict misogyny".

I saw the film and I very much like your conclusions regarding the film's statement about virginity and female self-sacrifice. Really interesting perspective. :)

Funny thing: my girlfriend, the one with the "out of body sensations," wants to go see it again. It's an addictive kind of discomfort, I guess. I can't wait to see it again too. I wonder how it will hold up on the small screen.

Thanks! I'm glad it makes sense. I've been ruminating for days!

I think it warrants mentioning here that the writing and performances in Black Swan were pretty uninspired, and that it's really the music, cinematography, and direction that makes the film interesting. Personally, I was only disturbed by one image in the film (I understand why others would be disturbed by more); and I will admit that this particular image continues to make my skin crawl a week after my viewing the film.

Otherwise, my thought is that Aronofsky seems to have a desire to show various aspects of obsessive desire and its relationship to mental health, (self-inflicted) corporeal destruction, and gender(ed) socialization. And I appreciate that.

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