Witnessing madness elicits emotions that range from compassion and fascination to revulsion and horror. It is difficult to see in real life, for various reasons, and as with a physical deformity, we are socialized not to stare. Art, of course, encourages us to stare and in Black Swan, cinematic art allows us a profound view into normally private psychological depths. But do we turn from manifestations of madness in life because it isn’t polite or do we fear the erosion of our own grip on reality? In art our horror may be the result of clever direction and filmmaking, but there also may be something more elemental in our reactions. We can watch with equanimity and distance ourselves when stories put characters in dangerous situations that we don’t expect to encounter. But what if the danger lies inside ourselves?
Black Swan opened yesterday amid overwhelmingly favorable reviews (see rottentomatoes.com) and I am happy to add to the applause. I think it’s great! Briefly, it is a story about a dancer who seeks to play the dual parts of the white and black queens in
, Tchaikovsky’s famous Romantic tragedy. The white queen succumbs to a spell transforming her into a swan from which she can only be rescued by true love. The prince who comes to her rescue is seduced by the evil black queen. The two characters usually are played by different dancers but the director wants to inject the familiar ballet with new drama and symbolism by adding this dramatic twist. It puts tremendous stress on the principle dancer, for each of the parts is physically demanding. But it is the psychological stresses that threaten to overwhelm the character of Nina, played brilliantly by Natalie Portman. Swan Lake
Black Swan plays subtly with stereotypes as well as our expectations. The dancers are jealous and ready to do whatever it takes to make the lead, including grueling workouts with over-the-hill dance coaches who have foreign accents. The director is aloof, arbitrary, and demanding. He is also sexually provocative and intimidating. Nina’s mother is overbearing and protective. But where is the line between stereotype and archetype? A lesser cinematic achievement would’ve resulted in clichés. But they are subverted in the same moment that Nina’s grip on reality comes into question. We constantly wonder what is real and what the result of her disturbed imagination.
Don’t go to see Black Swan expecting a pleasant story about ballet (and don’t take the children.) If you’ve seen Requiem for a Dream, also by the director, Aronofsky, you will have an inkling of how dark his work can be. The movie that this most closely resembles for me, however, is one that I haven’t thought about since I saw it in the 1970’s, but which came bubbling spontaneously out of my subconscious: Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Such is the power of art to live on even beyond conscious awareness. Both movies explore psychological tensions that result from sexual repression and loss of control. Black Swan sets this tension in the maelstrom of the backstage world of top level dancers where the struggle for artistic success is relentless. It questions the price of perfection and suggests that an overzealous pursuit of art itself might lead to madness. “Is the fault, dear Brutus, in our stars or in ourselves, that we…” will not be underlings?