I was reading the Sunday New York Times Magazine and, at the same time, working with an editor by e-mail on an article about the film Black Swan for a blog. It was then that it occurred to me that the article I was reading, B-Girl Bouillabaise, and Black Swan offer women several options on the road to their authenticity.
Many theatergoers leave the film Black Swan utterly confused, with more questions than answers. Others, like my friends, just didn’t care for its frightening images and “unnecessarily macabre” scenes. I left the movie exhilarated and spent, because it breathtakingly articulates the most important relationship of a woman’s life: the one she has with herself. For me, it’s a heroine’s journey into womanhood, the internal/external struggle of the duality of women’s lives. How do we break the most delicate of bonds, leaving our mothers to become the authentic “us?” How do we gracefully integrate the “nice” and “not-so-nice” aspects of who we really are, without refusing to be completely one or the other? How much are we willing to sacrifice to achieve success?
The film illustrates the most of the significant hurdles facing girls and women today in an unblinking and graphic manner. At first glance, its screenplay reads like a simple horror flick swirling around Swan Lake, the ballet based on Russian folk tales about a woman trapped in the body of a swan who must win the love of a prince to break the spell and become real. The film follows this story and cleverly mirrors the ballet’s themes.
Nina is an ingénue in the NYC ballet and, like many professional dancers, exercises control to a disturbing degree. Despite the appearance of glamour in her profession, she does little more than ride trains back and forth to the studio. Home is an apartment she shares with her mother Erica. The rabbit warren of dark halls and closed doors mirrors her repression, secrets, and bottled-up emotions. Her bedroom is still a soft girlish pink, full of stuffed animals and speaks volumes of arrested development. Her wardrobe is white, cream, pink, and other pale shades, emphasizing her still passive, unassuming personality. She calls her mother “Mommy” and shares every mundane detail of her life with her, their sparse meals, toe shoe preparations, and rehearsals.
Her campaign for the coveted main role of Swan Queen in Swan Lake necessitates uncharacteristic aggression. She must break from the corps of other women in order to receive the part every young dancer dreams of performing. It’s clear she has the skill and grace to play the innocent, virginal White Swan, yet doubtful that she can embody the deception and unbridled sexuality of the Black Swan. The demanding artistic director of the ballet company is firm in his belief about her core innocence, until Nina bites his lip in a forced kiss that abruptly changes his mind. The film’s trailer makes no bones about the story arc: Nina sinks into madness as she immerses herself in a drive for perfection to embody the white swan and the black one, her psychic doppelganger.
When newcomer Lily barges into the dance studio and interrupts Nina’s audition for the Swan Queen role at a crucial point, a triangle is introduced among the two dancers and the art director that involves lust, passion, ambition, competition, manipulation, seduction and perhaps a murder. The audience is never quite certain. Adding to the conflict, the ballet master turns the introduction of Nina as the new principal dancer into an opportunity to force the retirement of Beth, the company’s aging ‘swan’ who is no longer fresh and new.
It’s a juicy setup for director Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Pi, and The Wrestler) to weave various themes into the film including the nature of female friendship and competition, the mother/daughter relationship, sexual harassment, lesbian relationships, the transition from girlhood to womanhood, the pursuit of perfection, aging and women, and female self-hatred. All of Nina’s relationships carefully mine the themes at multiple levels where perspectives become completely enmeshed and it’s often not clear what’s real and what’s imagined.
The mother is a woman who appears supportive but animosity toward her daughter is seeping beneath her craggy surface. Erica alternately supports Nina and undermines her; she lives vicariously through her, at the same time resenting her achievements; she pushes her forward yet continually infantilizes the emerging woman in her daughter. As Nina amplifies her voice, she alienates her doting mother.
In the friendship with Lily we find both liberation and potential destruction. We are not sure if the attraction is platonic or sexual. Is Nina’s interest in Lily an admiration of her carefree passion-filled lifestyle, or does she need to keep tabs on Lily out of fear that she will be replaced, like Nina unseated the aging dancer? What is clear to me is that Lily represents an amalgam of the nurturer and the destroyer parts of a woman’s personality, the parts which a girl must understand about herself, tame, and integrate gracefully in order to become a fully self-actualized person.
Thomas, the ballet master, is a strong mentor, a ruthless artistic director bent on molding his piece of art, a sexual predator who harasses and seduces women to dominate and control them, and a manipulative boss who sees what company members are doing, but uses them as a means to his end. These are all facets of the dating and working scenes that young women often encounter.
Beth and the ballet setting are a microcosm for a society that shows its disdain for and cavalier dispatch of aging females. Eager to wear the star’s mantle, Nina steals her lipstick and personal effects to artificially harness her power. But Nina’s guilt over shining brighter than her friends and aging rival builds until it erupts into physical trauma. Are the happenings real or just imaginings of these tightly held deep-seated feelings? Underlying it all is the idea that girls must be perfect at any cost, or they must consider themselves bad. Nina physically mutilates herself as punishment and to release the pain, fear, and emptiness that this pursuit has brought.
As Nina transitions from innocent to worldly woman where drinking, drugging, and hooking up with either sex becomes casual, her clothing becomes darker, her makeup more severe. This is pure Gothic storytelling: suppression, rage, dominance, betrayal, desire, guilt, ambition and achievement. It brilliantly addresses how we fear our power and abilities, believing that if we fully exercise both, we will destroy and alienate those around us, including ourselves. Can women still be good and be successful? Will we be hated and despised if we go for what we want with all that we have? Will it be enough just to achieve it?
Acceptance and integration of the good/bad duality within one’s self is critical to a young woman’s future relationships with her mother and father, her boyfriends, her girlfriends. And, who among us hasn’t struggled with being a mother or a daughter, or perhaps both? It takes strength as a woman to really like what you see deep within yourself, go it alone and leave your mother’s ‘home.’ It takes confidence to hold your own with a boss who wants to use you on many levels. Courage is required to refuse to compromise when a boyfriend, lover, or husband wants more than you are willing to give. And it takes an even stronger woman to keep following her own dreams while allowing others, including a daughter, to seek different ones. It elevates us to a real heroine to applaud loudly, when they and we achieve it.
As a counterpoint to this movie, I urge you to read the New York Times magazine online today, Sunday, March 6. B-Girl Bouillabaisse is about a woman in the New York dance scene who took the road less traveled and was found by young filmmaker, Jacob Krupnick. In the process of dancing outside the lines of staged choreography and art production, she found herself. If you decide to view the video of her, please know beforehand that the background music contains lyrics that may be offensive to some viewers. The authenticity of the woman in this video is irrefutable to me. A real woman is not a black, white, or gray swan. It’s a woman of any age who truly knows and loves every part of herself. Only then, can she ‘break the spell’ and become real.
Here is the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/06/magazine/06GirlWalk-t.html?_r=1