It takes some pretty big balls to have Nina actually sprout feathers and turn into a swan, and I think what’s so beautiful about that scene is the same thing that makes it jarring: it feels completely fantastical at the same time as it feels, well, real. The moment’s sense of reality is delivered by the quality of the CGI itself, and also by the blatancy of Aronofsky’s metaphors: the imagery is so explicit that it transcends figurativeness. But that doesn’t stop it from being fun. And that’s another reason why Black Swan recalls Inglourious Basterds, because it can be emotionally overpowering and positively silly from one instant to the next. Consider, for example, the moment when Nina’s legs collapse from underneath her, or when her mother’s paintings begin to speak to her, or, better yet, the moment when Nina strangles herself in her own dressing room. In that latter scene, the Black Swan version of Nina snaps up off the ground in one swift, rigid motion according to not-dead-yet horror film convention. It’s frightening but also funny. Yet just a few moments later, Nina will be staring in horror at Lily’s corpse, the tone shifting yet again to a kind of “Oh, shit!” consequentiality. I realize that for some these tonal shifts are distracting and that the film isn’t daringly outrageous so much as irritatingly preposterous. But for the most part, it works for me. The major exception is the scene in which Ryder’s Beth repeatedly stabs herself in the face, because that’s the moment that feels like Aronofsky is after nothing more than cheap shock value.
EH: What you say about the swan transformation sequence really resonates with me. That’s what I was getting at earlier when I said that Aronofsky films the surreal and the outrageous with a sense of the concrete that makes even the film’s most obviously absurd flourishes seem tangible, if not plausible. Although the second half of the film is dominated by illusions and hallucinations chained together, one fantasy superseding or reversing another, it doesn’t have the dreamlike vibe one would expect. Each illusion feels real, if only for the moment when it’s actually onscreen. When Nina comes home drunk, Lily both seems to be there and doesn’t: the mirror shot and the fact that Lily is mouthing the words that Nina then says suggest that she’s a mental projection, but then the subsequent sex scene is so tactile that it’s difficult to dismiss completely. The constant blurring of Lily and Nina, both here and during the “murder” sequence, is so disorienting because Lily is both a real person and a convenient stand-in for Nina’s mental projections of her own darker half.
Aronofsky and Tarantino are very different directors in most respects, but the Inglourious Basterds comparison is a good one in the sense that Aronofsky, like Tarantino, isn’t afraid to risk the ridiculous in his pursuit of the sublime, or rather he sees the two as inextricably tangled. I’ve criticized Aronofsky for his excesses before, notably in our discussion of Requiem for a Dream, but what’s interesting about him as a filmmaker is that the same tendencies that occasionally make him aggravating and offputting are also the wellsprings of his best work. I think that’s certainly the case here, where he displays welcome boldness in dealing with a potentially overwrought conceit that he manages to make genuinely affecting. In this, and in the film’s psychosexual confusions and absurdities, he’s like Tarantino but even more so like Paul Verhoeven, whose own bitchy backstage movie (Showgirls) is absurdly enjoyable and complex, it’s safe to say, in totally different ways.
It’s interesting: I thought Requiem for a Dream was, as you say about that scene with Beth, all cheap shocks and cheap horrors, so I wonder why the in some ways superficially similar Black Swan doesn’t really hit me the same way. I think it comes down to the sense of playfulness and dark humor that we’ve been talking about here. Pi and Requiem for a Dream are a lot of things—even, in some scenes, slightly humorous—but one thing they’re not is playful. I think Black Swan, for all its imperfections, represents Aronofsky coming to terms with the trashy schlockmeister he was in those first two films. He’s really embracing that aspect of his cinematic personality but without the mix of dour moralizing and exploitation filmmaking that was so hard to take in Requiem for a Dream. Instead, he’s winking at the audience with references to his earlier films, and conjuring up outrageous imagery that generates a queasy mix of emotions: shock, horror, sadness, confusion, laughter both appalled and genuinely delighted.
JB: That’s right. And at the same time he’s giving his characters room for a little variety, too. In Pi and Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky’s characters are in a constant freefall toward doom and despair; even seemingly happy moments are colored by the gut-wrenching queasiness of a nosedive. Black Swan, on the other hand, while too single-minded to be called nuanced, heads toward its grim conclusion like a feather fluttering toward the earth, rather than falling like a stone. Consider that Lily, Nina’s rival, is alternately friendly and conniving, depending on Nina’s grasp of reality. And Nina’s mother, Erica, is monstrous in most scenes—again, according to Nina’s skewed perspective—and yet Aronofsky allows her the moment toward the end of Nina’s triumphant performance, when Nina catches sight of Erica in the crowd, her eyes filled with tears, her expression one of pride and undeniable love. And of course there’s Vincent Cassel’s Thomas, the ballet instructor who is an emotional abuser, a sexual predator and a mindfucker who nevertheless goes from playboy to schoolboy when Nina walks off stage at the end of the second act, consumed with a Black Swan’s confidence, and plants an erotic kiss on her teacher. To some degree these variances are there just to make the line between reality and fantasy elusive. But I suspect they are also there because Aronofsky has matured as a filmmaker. No wonder Ryder’s Beth doesn’t quite belong; she seems to be a leftover from one of Aronofsky’s earlier pictures.
Yet Black Swan doesn’t just inspire thoughts of Aronofsky’s previous pictures, it also calls to mind Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948). That film, like this one, is about the obsessiveness of ballet dancing and the influence of love on performance, albeit from a different angle: In Black Swan, Thomas wants Nina to find her sexuality, to forget about the dance itself, to let herself go, to forget she’s on stage, whereas in The Red Shoes, ballet coordinator Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook, in a terrifically over-the-top performance) wants his star, Victoria Page (Moira Shearer), to ignore her womanhood, commit only to the dance, listen to the score and never forget she’s on stage. Nina’s epiphany is realizing that there’s nothing holding her back from being a great dancer, whereas Victoria’s epiphany is realizing that there are things in life she loves more than dance. These women end up in similar circumstances but at opposite ends of the spectrum from one another. Still, both films convey the idea that falling in love with something as deeply as Nina and Victoria fall in love with dance can be deadly.
EH: Yeah, The Red Shoes is a clear reference point for Aronofsky here, although he’s exploring, in some ways, a sexual dynamic that’s the reverse of the one in the Powell/Pressburger film. In Black Swan, sexuality unleashes creativity, and it’s getting in touch with the sensual urges she’s long suppressed that allows Nina to dance so well at the film’s climax; in The Red Shoes, sexuality leads away from the creative life, not deeper into it. I’m also reminded of another Powell and Pressburger film, Black Narcissus, in which Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) goes mad with desire for her convent’s local liaison, Mr. Dean (David Farrar). Ruth stalks through the convent, looking increasingly sinister and wild, her eyes wide and staring, her face made-up in garish colors on a pale white base. Her transformation from pure, innocent nun into sexually deranged madwoman isn’t quite as extreme as Nina’s transfiguration into the Black Swan, but it has a similar feeling, and I think Aronofsky is also nodding to this film.
In both Black Swan and Black Narcissus, female sexuality is seen as dangerous and violent, as a source of destructive urges, although these films also suggest that the repression of these urges can be just as dangerous, creating the pressure-cooker vibe that permeates both films. The idea of female sexuality as a powerful and potentially destructive force is a trope common to exploitation pictures, horror films, and film noir, all genres that Aronofsky is riffing on here. When Nina puts on bright red lipstick (stolen from Beth) to ask Thomas for the lead role, she’s echoing the actions of Ruth in Black Narcissus, who also dons red lipstick for her attempted seduction of Dean. Lipstick is often a symbol of worldliness and sensuality, in these films as well as at the end of Godard’s Hail Mary, where that film’s stand-in for the Virgin Mary, having put her spiritual task behind her, re-embraces her worldly, womanly, physical self.
These kinds of tensions percolate throughout Black Swan as well, although Nina’s purity is not spiritually motivated in the least. In fact, the treatment of female sexuality is one of the most problematic aspects of this film. Nina is a mess of contradictory impulses. She’s a repressed, confused young girl who’s obviously only been told negative things about sex by her mother, and yet she also has an instinct for using her sexuality to get what she wants, an instinct that fully flowers when she becomes the Black Swan. At various times she’s a victim and an aggressor, embodying both the virginal good girl and the sexually voracious femme fatale. As is often the case with Aronofsky, the film is trafficking in clichés about teacher/student sexual exploitation and the old virgin/whore dichotomy. But what does Aronofsky actually have to say about female sexuality? I’ve seen some people make the argument that the film’s treatment of women is regressive—notably advanced by Marilyn Ferdinand—and I think there’s more than a little truth to that criticism. At the same time, Nina is so screwed up in part because of regressive attitudes about female sexuality, because she’s been fed the idea that sexuality and desire are incompatible with professional success (an idea that’s implicitly embodied in The Red Shoes, as well), because she’s been encouraged to remain childlike and pure. These attitudes leave her open to be victimized and exploited by Thomas—although, on the other other hand, the film does at times implicitly affirm Thomas’ chauvinistic ideas about women and their sexuality. As is so often the case with Aronofsky, he seems to be balanced between regurgitating clichés and subverting them.
JB: Right, well, I think I agree with you on the last sentence, but otherwise you might be reading something into the film that isn’t there. Is it plausible that Nina’s mother has told her “negative things about sex”? Absolutely. Is it plausible that Nina represses her sexuality in order to prove her dedication to her career, and to avoid the appearance that she’s risen through the ranks because of what she can do on her back rather than what she can do on her toes? Sure. But what if it’s simpler than that? What if Nina’s sexual discomfort is simply the product of her stunted maturation? As Aronofsky repeatedly makes clear, Nina is a little girl in every way but her age. She lives with her mom. She goes to bed in a pink room, amidst cutesy stuffed animals and a music box with a spinning ballerina. She doesn’t drink, doesn’t party, doesn’t seem to have any friends whatsoever. She regards Beth with a tagalong’s awe. And her attraction to Thomas is a schoolgirl “hot for teacher” crush; she wants him, but wouldn’t know what to do with him if she got him. Sure enough, when Thomas doesn’t come on to Nina at his loft apartment, she’s disappointed. When he does come on to her, she resists—not because she’s playing hard to get but because she doesn’t know how to respond. Her sexuality is repressed because for all intents and purposes she’s a 9-year-old. And why? Because of her mother, certainly, but also because of fear. Nina has resisted growing up, possibly because so long as she’s just a little girl, she’s still an up-and-comer in the world of ballet, with room to dream that her best years are ahead of her.
Earlier I mentioned how Portman makes Nina look as if she could explode at any moment, and that’s what’s most astounding about her performance: that we can feel years of emotional repression in her countenance. Black Swan catches Nina at her breaking point, which of course explains all of her wild and tragic fantasies. It’s fitting that Nina imagines herself becoming the Black Swan when she gives into her foreign adult impulses, because ballet is the only world she knows. So, to answer your question, what does Aronofsky have to say about female sexuality? Maybe not very much. Because I don’t think he’s trying to say anything about female sexuality. Let’s remember: Thomas tells Nina that the way to become a better dancer is to go home and touch herself, but that’s not the way things actually play out. Nina tries to fondle herself, and wakes up to find her mother in her room. Then she appears to have what might be her first sexual experience, but it’s all an imagined affair with Lily, and at the end of it Nina gets suffocated by a pillow. In truth, Nina’s sexual experimentations are failed efforts that underline her repression. So Thomas is wrong, because what ultimately turns Nina into the Black Swan is a climax of rage, not a climax of hormones. Nina simply refuses to be a little girl anymore. Embracing her sexuality is part of that, sure, but only part. This is as much an Ugly Duckling-into-Swan story as it’s a White Swan-into-Black Swan story.
Now, having said that, I think it’s absolutely fair to criticize this film as a lewd male fantasy, because just like Fight Club’s ultimate anti-Tyler Durden moral can’t possibly overcome all of the Tyler Durden glorification that precedes it, Black Swan’s mostly asexual conclusion cannot undo the shot of Nina writhing in her bed, or the shot of Lily putting her face between Nina’s legs. This film would have a decidedly different atmosphere if Portman and Kunis weren’t so easy on the eyes. And besides, Black Swan is still about Nina’s discovery of her womanhood, even if she doesn’t discover her womanhood in quite the way that Thomas imagined. So I understand the objections completely. But as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes prove, extremeness isn’t always cheap.
EH: I know, I’m really just playing devil’s advocate here. As we’ve kept saying about Aronofsky, he’s temperamentally drawn to the extreme, the lurid, the melodramatic, and if that means that his films can often be accused of going too far in various directions, it’s also the source of the power in his filmmaking. Black Swan, I think, is more interesting, not less, for the ways in which it flirts with cliché and lewdness. It is at times a very troubling and problematic blend of mutually exclusive ideas and suggestions, but then so is Nina, caught between repression and liberation, passivity and aggression, naïveté and knowledge, girlhood and womanhood.
Incidentally, on the matter of the mother’s role in Nina’s sexual repression, I’m reading between the lines a bit but not, I don’t think, discovering things that aren’t there. In the scene where Erica talks to Nina about the notoriously lascivious Thomas, Erica’s tone isn’t merely one of parental concern: she seems to share with Lermontov from The Red Shoes the idea that a great dancer must remain pure and untainted by worldly matters like love or sex. Erica doesn’t want Nina to make the same mistake she made: the mistake of having sex, the mistake of getting pregnant. It’s obvious that if Nina has remained childlike into her early twenties, it’s largely because of the mother who sits by her bed each night, playing lullabies from a music box as a porcelain ballerina turns pirouettes.
If Nina is uncomfortable with sexuality, embarrassed and confused by it, Lily is exactly the opposite. The scene where Nina and Lily go out together develops this duality and opposition in even the smallest touches, like the way Lily orders a big, juicy cheeseburger and proceeds to devour it in big, sloppy bites while Nina nibbles at tiny crumbs poised on the tines of a fork, held ever so delicately and properly. The gap is further emphasized by the way the leering waiter banters sexually with Lily about her burger. Even food becomes sexual in this context, and every detail of the two girls’ manner and behavior suggests how, for Lily, everything can become sensual and provocative, while Nina is “frigid” and closed-off from such experiences, unable to handle the slightest suggestion of sex without growing frazzled. This distinction is at least partially erased later in the evening, when the girls take ecstasy together and dance with a pair of guys who pick them up.
The dance scene at the club is brilliantly conceived, a skipping, flickering encapsulation of that peculiar strobing quality where time seems to pass in snapshot fragments, halting sequences of images with gaping caesurae in between. In the flashing onrush of imagery, it’s seldom clear if we’re seeing Nina, or Lily, or both. The sequence ends with Nina waking up from this fluttering sequence of images and blank spots in a bathroom stall, realizing that she’s in the middle of passionately making out with a random guy. Later, time skips again when Nina decides to visit Beth in the hospital. One moment she’s walking out of the ballet studio, the next she’s in the hospital, the next she’s winding a corner into Beth’s room, with the sound of ambulance sirens bridging the cuts, providing continuity to the abrupt disjunction of time and space. Aronofsky’s editing suggests the sleepwalking quality of Nina’s experience of time at this point, the way her brain seems to black out and wander elsewhere at crucial points, as though her consciousness were taking a break while some other force directed her body around. The film is full of hallucinations and visions that replace objective reality with internal landscapes, but this is a more subtle example of the film’s visualization of subjective experiences, which has always been Aronofsky’s strong point.
JB: Absolutely. In an era of no-limits gross-outs—and in some respect, Requiem for a Dream qualifies under that heading—it’s rather remarkable how much Aronofsky can get under our skin in Black Swan via comparatively mundane unpleasantries, like Nina’s constant scratching, or her busted toenail, or that tiny hangnail that peels back to her knuckles. Just imagining those scenes puts a bitter taste in my mouth. Those instances are so much more disturbing than the sight of Beth’s gruesome leg injury, or even the sight of Beth stabbing herself in the face. I think there’s a lesson there—about the extra-visceral quality of easily relatable things, and about Aronofsky’s rather democratic approach to provocation: nothing is so dull that it can’t be made lurid.
But even though Aronofsky’s reestablished affinity for all things ugly might suggest that Black Swan signals a lack of growth, I think Aronofsky is indeed evolving, while boldly remaining the filmmaker he wanted to be in the first place. What Aronofsky has delivered in his three most recent pictures that was almost entirely lacking in his first two movies is palpable, genuine joy. The Fountain, The Wrestler and Black Swan are all predominantly dark pictures, but their moments of lightness and happiness, even euphoria, feel equally invested in and realized. No longer is Aronofsky simply building up his characters so he can tear them down. He’s tearing them down so he can build them up.
That might seem like an insignificant change, but it isn’t. As bittersweet as the triumphs in Aronofsky’s movies can be—Tommy loses Izzi, Randy commits a form of suicide, Nina loses her mind (and perhaps more than that)—they are earned. Aronofsky may rely on cliché for many things, but his emotional crescendos aren’t the least bit formulaic. The Fountain remains my favorite of Aronofsky’s films, but over the course of this conversation, Black Swan is now threatening to overtake The Wrestler for the No. 2 spot. It’s an outrageous, unrestrained, heavy-handed, horny opera. And I love it.