Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Black Swan and the myth of the self-destructive female: The Red Shoes, Perfect Blue, Lust Caution

WARNING: Spoilers for the three movies mentioned in the title.

It's hard to know what to say about Black Swan, and I think this is a testament to the film. Every comparison and generalization comes with caveats; the only things that seem to hold unarguably true are the most obvious stylistic observations: it's a psychological thriller with all the aesthetic trappings of the classical world, remixed into a dark psychological landscape. It's a film about the collision of personalities, of the type you only find in an intense world like ballet: aggressive, unreserved personalities that deal in raw human emotional currency, like purity, desire, and control.

What impresses me most about Black Swan, I think, is the intensity of the personalities that collide in order to make this story happen. Portman did a brilliant job playing Nina, the virginal ballet purist who can't seem to let go of herself in order to find her inner "black swan" -- but this role is so perfect a showcase for a brilliant performance, that I think we all sort of expected this of Portman, who's never half-assed a role in her career. Mila Kuniz works wonders as her counterpart, too, but honestly, Kuniz never quite reaches the heights of authenticity that Portman attains. Her character is a bit too much of a foil, a bit too empty and enigmatic, for her to really show off her acting chops.

But Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy, the director of the ballet that drives these characters into conflict... he was really the stand-out, wouldn't you say? His performance is noble and degraded and inspiring and vicious, balancing the things that a ballet director would have to be: an embodiment of the art form's allure, and also a medium for its horrifying expectations, its life-destroying pressure. He sails through so many modes -- creepy, charming, enraged, and sensual -- it's hard for me to do any justice in describing his character.

There's a precedent for this character, of course: Boris Lermentov, the ballet director from the Archer Brothers' The Red Shoes, is a similarly ambivalent, enigmatic figure, a dangerous catalyst for Victoria's love for the dance. Ebert said of him, "... the impresario defies analysis. In his dark eyes we read a fierce resentment. No, it is not jealousy, at least not romantic jealousy. Nothing as simple as that." Lermentov may have a special sort of insidious purpose, but ultimately, he's not much worse than Leroy. Both manipulate their dancers, treat them as objects, and in regarding them as avatars for some dancing muse, forget that they're actually just young girls with real lives.

I think, though, that Thomas Leroy is a more complex character than Lermentov, because in place of Lermentov's melodramatic cruelty and cynicism, Leroy seems to really believe in the human possibilities of dance. And though Leroy is insidiously sexual, he seems to believe in love and sensuality, as well, even if he channels it all into the dance. So he's no less responsible than Lermentov was for the fate that befalls his performer, but in Leroy Thomas's case, it's hard to call him a "villain."

Some friends have suggested that Black Swan was not a literal hallucination-murder-death story, but rather a metaphor for the main character's artistic blossoming. They see a large part of the story as taking place inside of Nina's head (which the narrative gladly acknowledges), and they consider the possibility that the ending is inside her head, as well. This reading may be a little Inception-esque for my taste, but it's a compelling one to consider. Remember, for instance, that Nina saw herself as an actual, physical black swan, whereas she was seen by the audience as a dancer nailing the performance.

If you read the narrative in this way, seeing madness as the catalyst for a butterfly-like personal breakthrough, it comes to resemble another classic tale of creative ambition gone bad, told in Satoshi Kon's anime masterpiece Perfect Blue. That film, though dissociation was its organizing principle, turned out to be a coming-of-age story of Mima, its female protagonist, as she moved away from performing crowd-friendly girl-pop and into the adult world of acting and sensationalism. If you read Black Swan metaphorically, it's close kin to this animated cousin. There are a number of character parallels, as well: Nina's cloying mother has a clear equal in the over-protective casting agent in Perfect Blue, and Aaronofsky's Beth Macintyre, played by Winona Rider, plays a parallel part to the murderous fanboy who stalks Mima in order to prevent her from destroying her own innocence.

These three films are part of a broader cultural myth that's started forming in cinema: the myth of the female artist whose devotion, mixed with the dangerous elements of sexual desire and professional ambition, becomes her path to self-destruction. Aside from The Red Shoes and Perfect Blue (thanks, Frankie, for that observation!), this structure also appears in Ang Lee's Lust, Caution in a slightly modified form (thanks, Mai, for that suggestion!). In Lust, Caution, the theater is the political world, and the dissociation is between the protagonist's performance as a collaborator and her true identity as a subversive. It's a fascinating application of the template, remixed but undeniable in its fidelity.

So there are a few common characteristics that surface in these closely-related movies, and I'd like to enumerate them. If anybody knows of any other films that seem to reinforce this myth, please let me know, I'd like to hear about them.

1 - Female protagonist with a creative ambition that she pursues obsessively
1a - to the point of purism, self-denial, and/or monasticism
2 - A career change, accompanied by a high degree of pressure to perform well
3 - A demand, inherent in the performance, that leads to an unresolvable inner conflict for the protagonist

Some other common characteristics:

4 - the protagonist's final self-destruction (BS, RS, LC)
5 - an over-protective maternal figure limiting the protagonist's growth (BS, PB, LC?)
6 - a monster lurking at the margins, nursing resentment and/or jealousy toward the protagonist (BS, PB)
7 - an unhealthy conflation of desire and sexual repression (BS, PB, LC)
8 - a strong male gaze as catalyst for the protagonist's unhealthy obsession (BS, RS, LC)
9 - a theme of psychological dissociation (BS, PB, LC?)

This is among the most powerful mythic structures I've identified in my short time as a cinephile, with Aaronofsky's Black Swan as an apparent epitome of the type. I'd love to hear other thoughts on the growth of this narrative, if anyone has some other ideas. If you haven't seen any of the above movies, by the way, definitely go check them out. They're all amazing.


Mark Blankenship said...

I think you're absolutely right about the archetypal story in these films, and I think it's interesting how often this very story, to some degree or another, is often used to explain the rise and fall of female pop stars. Give or take a controlling mother and a triumphant final moment, you can see echoes of this arc in the public trajectories of Lindsay Lohan and Whitney Houston. Does the media force real life to seem like a reflection of the arc?

Also... I'm struck by how the movie Postcards from the Edge (and by extension, Carrie Fisher's actual life) also reflects what you're talking about here. Again, does this story exist in real life, or do we manipulate our understanding of real life until it delivers this story?

And what is it about this arc, be it in fiction or in the news, that's so compelling?

Garreth said...

While I'm intrigued by your vision of a new cultural myth and the mythemes you identify in these films, I wonder if Occam's Razor might not apply here. That is, is it possible that the general storyline of the movie follows an established archetypical pattern (albeit with a twist) and that only certain details differ.

For example: Could this be a hero myth? You've got the tripartite framework for sure. There's the Emergence of the character who might be the savior (of the ballet) but she doesn't know it yet. (Doesn't Thomas Leroy say something to that effect early on?: "If I were only casting the White Swan, you would be it;" or, in the middle of the film, "You could be brilliant, but you're a coward."?) And certainly there's the Decent into a personal Hell to meet the "dark side." (Black Swan, Lilly's Character (is it me or is that name really close to Lilith?), her own demons (insert any of a number of psychoses caused by the obsession (hers and her mother's) with ballet) (Whew!!! That was a lot of nested parentheses.) And then the transcendent triumph of the hero. Of course, she has to die to triumph, or does she? Regardless, such "death" cements the hero myth...think of T.E. Lawrence's demise at the end of Lawrence of Arabia. Certainly his accident was chronologically further removed from his ascendence than was hers, but tragic nonetheless.

You'll find all the structural identifiers you list in a film like Lawrence of Arabia or, to be cliche about it, in the Skywalker mythos of the middle three Star Wars films. Sure, Luke doesn't die. Nina does, either physically or psychologically, to herself, if indeed she even had an independent self to begin with. But however perverse her "death", there is a triumph at the end--"I was perfect"--as there is in all hero myths, few of which triumphs are without some attendant tragedy.

As for the finer points and the attribution of this myth to the female artist, I agree, at least in the case of Black Swan, that it's a fascinating application of the mythic structure. I've not seen the other movies and will, when time permits, take your advice to watch them. But from a purely BS perspective, I'm not convinced this indicative of the formation of a emergent and broader cultural myth.

On another note, I'd agree that this may well be Aronofsky's signature film, melding as it does the deft ability with camera work (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) with the metaphysical and impressionistic (The Fountain) with the tragedy of pure narrative (The Wrester). While I much prefer the edgy, angsty, nerdy paranoia of Pi to the psycho-sexo-drama of Black Swan; and while I much prefer the tragedy of The Wrestler and Requiem to Black Swan, this film just pulls it all together.

Jesse said...


I think Occam's Razor is a good tool for explanations (i.e. if there are two reasons, the simpler one -- the one with less active agents -- should be assumed). However, I don't think it applies so strictly in the case of interpretation, because interpretation has to allow for multiple levels of analysis simultaneously.

In this case, I think the Hero Myth certainly applies to these films, to some degree, but I'm working on a more specific level... a contemporary "collective unconscious" level that indicates something about our society, rather than a pan-historical metacultural level, which is where we find the Hero Myth.

In terms of the Hero Myth, I do believe my schema is only differentiating itself according to certain details (which stem from certain gender and genre assumptions), but it's really those details that matter to this reading. Of course, there may be another mythic schema, more specific than the hero myth, that applies to this film and draws together its archetypal characteristics better than the points I enumerated. If so, I'd be interested in hearing/reading about it.

By the way, Aaronofsky was definitely influenced by both The Red Shoes and Perfect Blue. The first is an absolute essential for classic cinema, and you have to watch it -- it's a beautiful movie. And he actually purchased the rights to Perfect Blue a while back, so clearly he's seen the film, and thinks a lot of it. You should definitely see all of these films, as they are all super-great.

Thanks for the comment! Hope all's well back in PA!

Garreth said...


The distinction between explanation and interpretation is crucial, and I thought about that after I sent the first comment. Being an English major at some point in my life, this should have occurred to me.

Too, I understand the finer focus of your reading here and your application of the reading to the exposition of a contemporary social mytheme. I'd be interested in following your thinking on that in media analysis beyond film. I note Mark's reference to the public lives of Whitney Houston and Lindsay Lohan, but it seems to me that such trajectories are at least as old as Hollywood itself, so I'm not sure they'd fall within the purview of a contemporary understanding of your idea, unless they are substantially different than the trajectories of other fallen stars (Judy Garland, Marilyn, to name just a few).

Your blog remains instructive and educational as always. All the best to you.