On Christmas Eve, I saw Black Swan, which I thought was pretty extraordinary, and I’m still working it all through in my head. Stylistically, it’s sort of an unholy union of unholies: Roman Polanski, Dario Argento and the brightest work of Brian De Palma (Sisters, Carrie)–which may sound like a nightmare to some, but for me is kind of the Big Dream.
I’ve heard some dismiss the movie as “over the top,” which is a criticism I’ve never really understood. If I didn’t seek out heightened realities in movies, I wouldn’t be going to many (and I love movies). Moreover, I think “over the top” or histrionic or all those criticisms are frequently code for something else–and might have to do with a certain discomfort in movies about women, about women’s bodies (in ways that aren’t situating them solely for ornamental display), about what used to be called “female hysteria” (or just “hysteria,” since the word itself derives from “womb”).
(It’s interesting to set it alongside director Darren Aronofsky’s last film, The Wrestler, in this regard–an explicitly kitchen-sink-realistic rendering of the male body facing self-imposed abuses for the sake of a different kind of performance.)
It’s an expressionistic movie, which is one of my favorite kinds. Before I saw it, my friend Reed told me that he thought many of the film’s naysayers were making the mistake of judging it as a film about dance or as some realistic depiction of the ballet life and finding it lacking. But the movie has no interest in realism, or objective realities. The world of the movie is the world of someone’s head, not someone’s life.
There’s so much to swim in in the movie: split selves … driving, mutilating perfectionism … an arrested sexuality. But Black Swan is also, and perhaps mostly, a movie about an artist, and I think it might be kinda revelatory about that. In A.O. Scott’s piece in the Times, he refers to it–by way of praise–as an “overheated, wildly melodramatic rendering of an artist’s struggle.” How do I create this (e.g., this performance, this painting, this book)? I can only do so by becoming it. It’s a process of brutal self-annhilation and transformation. It requires, depending on how you look at it, utter self-erasure (“I’m no longer me, I am IT.”) or complete self-absorption (no movie in recently memory has so stunningly depicted the egotism of the artist–there is no world in the movie but in the dancer’s head. It’s the only thing that matters.).
And so it’s also about aesthetic risk. Natalie Portman’s emotionally fractured dancer pushes her body beyond physical limits to make it correlate with the beautiful chaos in her head. She feels herself as the “black swan” and wills herself to become it, to manifest it. The flesh resists but finally submits. And it is, as Scott writes, a kind of “liberation in self-destruction.” And the movie takes those same aesthetic risks, walking a tightrope between art and kitsch, between psychological complexity and camp. But if it didn’t risk the fall, it would lose all its incantational magic.
This is, admittedly, dark stuff. It makes us squirm under our skin. And makes us maybe even want to make fun of it, that nervous giggle we get when we see something very internal, secret, private laid bare out there. But Black Swan also warns us sneakily of the dangers of that, of repression, restriction, compulsion. You hold them down, they come back bigger, badder. The movie asks us to, even at great risk, release ourselves.