“The great epochs of our life come when we gain the courage to rechristen our evil as what is best in us,” Nietzsche said. Is cruelty the worst thing we do? What about the many small ways in which cruelty is the only way to push other people to be better?
Darren Aronofsky has made 4 films before Black Swan. The Liberal Ironist has incidentally seen all of them: Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), and The Wrestler (2008). (He was also one of the writers and producers for Below (2002), a really dumb horror movie set at sea during World War II, but I would guess its all-around awfulness is in spite of his efforts.) In previous reviews of The Social Network, The Ghost Writer, and Vertigo I’ve raised some of the core themes and elements which I think are present in the movies of some truly talented directors. Darren Aronofsky’s movies are about obsession, be it an attempt to reach a timeless state of contentment or to achieve some kind of perfection. Constraints always close around the protagonist. (It might be possible to reduce these constraints to physical constraints, but it isn’t necessary.) In Pi, Max, a very…gifted mathematician is threatened both by factions seeking to do what he thinks his pursuit of a “master number” will allow him to do, and the crippling headaches brought on by his own gift. In Requiem for a Dream, our smack-peddling protagonist’s mother recklessly tries to slim down to fit into an old dress. In The Fountain, the protagonist literally believes he can cure death–and has a timely interest in doing so. In The Wrestler, an aging wrestler no longer on the main circuit is unable to come to terms with his unimportance, his mal-adaption for the normal responsibilities of life, or most of all, his loneliness.
All of these protagonists run up hard and fast on limits–to their health, usually, but some combination of limits to their sanity, intellect or emotional integrity are involved as well. The bare essentials are: Introverted antihero is obsessed with a victory, whether great or small, but is undermined in some way by the frailty of his or her body. Among all of these protagonists, however, only the Wrestler was able to find the words to express something they must all have been feeling–an intense loneliness.
The opening scene in Black Swan is so discrete, so separate from what follows after that I immediately suspected we were supposed to see in it the film entire. Our protagonist–Nina, an almost-pathetic ballerina made riveting by Natalie Portman–dances the prologue to Tchaikovsky‘s Swan Lake, starting out as a beautiful princess before being attacked by a hideous sorceror. The princess doesn’t even seem to notice that he is there–shadowing her every movement, sometimes taking control–but she is clearly distressed and the unforced grace in her movements is gone. When the sorceror departs, the princess has become a swan, still beautiful, even able to fly, but still something-less-than-human, her despair obvious in her movements.
Nina’s ballet director informs the ensemble that they will perform Swan Lake as their season opener. He agrees with those who think it is performed to death, but notes 2 differences about this performance that he thinks will make it meaningful: It will be unadorned and focus on the raw emotions at play in the work as he understands it, and the same ballerina will play the protagonist White Swan and the lusty, wicked Black Swan. The director entrusts the part to Nina but admits that on account of her weakness of spirit and obvious self-restraint he doubts she has a dark side.
He should never have doubted this about someone whose life strikes such dark chords. The dominant figures in Nina’s life–her mother and her ballet instructor–cruelly contort her into their desired shape of a great ballet dancer. She is on tiptoe when around these figures, clearly unable to be herself, but even when she rebels she is unable to do it fully because she cannot find the words to describe the nature of her suffering. This is because she has been raised and trained to be the perfect ballerina for so long that she wants it even more than these cruel, obsessive figures do. Nina is weirdly-childlike, to the point that we can forget that she is dangerously-obsessed with her art even at the junctures where it is most-obvious.
This is what makes the antagonists in her life hard to judge. Nina’s mother has poured all of her hopes into her daughter. She is always there for her daughter, and she isn’t wanted at all. Some would point to the way Nina deals with her mother to say that she is selfish, and thus not a sympathetic character. The problem with this is that Nina only wants the things she wants because of her mother’s influence. She has no life outside of striving towards the perfection she has been raised to deliver, can’t imagine one and doesn’t want one. The interesting thing about her weird, growing unpleasantness towards her mother is that it seems not to be a consequence of her mother’s dominance so much as her own inability to make sense of her desire to be free of a mother who both agree has successfully determined what her life would be. We are seeing rebellion as a Medieval apprentice would know it.
Nina’s director, Thomas Leroy (played by a marvelously-kaleidoscopic Vincent Cassel) presents a less-subtle but more-maddening moral problem. He is able to transform the leads in his ballets to render beautiful performances, but their level of devotion to their art–and their closeness to him–leaves some of the girls deadened shells when they inevitably grow too old to continue their exertions. Is he a cruel, perverse man abusing his leads? Is he a visionary asking the right difficult questions and putting the emotional corrective into each of their lives that allows them to control their bodies like never before? The less of a Liberal and the more of an ironist you are, the more-inclined you’ll be to respect him–and to admire Nina–for pursuing this outrageous level of dedication.
In either event Black Swan raises doubts about the primacy of consent to moral justification. To behold a perfectionist like Nina–like many of Aronofsky’s tragic characters–is to see one of the forms of the private hell ambition can become.