Wednesday, 4 May 2011

How do you make a Black Swan by Michael Arribas-Ayllon

The following is a piece written by Michael Arribas-Ayllon and relates to our sciSCREENing of The Black Swan last Thursday.

The Black Swan is a classic narrative of self-destruction and part of a long historical tradition of exploring the boundary between transformation and annihilation. Freudians call this fundamental opposition of life forces Eros (the will to life) and Thanatos (the will to death). The Black Swan is a derivative of a much older story about the struggle of these forces. In fact, it is not the first time the ballet has been used as the setting to dramatise this struggle. The tension of life and death principles and the impossibility of perfection are embodied in the persona of Nina, played by Natalie Portman.

My task is not to diagnose Nina or to offer a moral commentary on the representation of mental illness in this film. Instead, I want to focus on the question I ask in the title of this essay: How do you make a Black Swan? For me, this is a more interesting question than asking: What’s wrong with Nina? We could debate whether Nina suffers from psychosis, we could speculate the causes of her pathology, but the film is not a genre of factual representation. If anything, it is an exaggerated simulation of madness at the ballet. Aronofsky’s Black Swan is essentially a horror movie that uses the setting of the ballet to portray the fragility of female autonomy and the tragedy of perfectionism. In this short essay, I use the film as a thought-device for exploring themes of pathologies of will and transformation of self.

To answer the question How do make a Black Swan? I need two concepts. The concept of ‘power’ maps the web of relations that produce the persona of Nina; the relations in which she is both an object of control and the subject of her own control. The concept of ‘desire’ is also essential to understanding the productivity of the persona who desires perfection, but destroys herself in order to transcend it.

Power and desire is linked to two prominent themes in the film. The first theme is the ‘obsessive’ model of desire, which describes the production of Nina as the eligible White Swan. Here, the film draws on the archetype of the child whose fragility and sexual innocence embodies the qualities of rigid perfection, but not the qualities of the Black Swan. The child cannot embody the permissive desire of the temptress. We have to turn to the figure of the mother, played by Barbara Hershey, to understand the making of this child. Hershey is compelling in bringing to life the controlling, obsessive mother who lives out her own unfulfilled desires through her daughter. She controls her daughter’s body, regularly monitoring for signs of self-destruction, and creates an environment in which Nina never grows up. Surrounded by her fluffy toys and a music box playing Swan Lake, Nina lives in a Peter Pan world of her mother’s fashioning. On occasion, the film gives us reason to think that Hershey’s character is unhinged – depressed, over-protective and fixated on the daughter.

Outside the psychodrama of the mother-daughter relation, the character of Beth, played by Winona Ryder, is also an important projection of Nina’s desires. She represents the brittle object of perfection that descends into annihilation. Beth is the ballerina who has reached the end of the cycle. Once, the princess of the stage, she is discarded by an industry in search of the next princess. For Nina, Beth is the ideal she covets so much that stealing her possessions is the means of embodying her perfection; coveting the image of perfection is the child’s technique of identification. In the obsessive model of desire, we understand the making of the White Swan as the product of an obsessive mother unable to fulfil her own desires on the stage and the productivity of the obsessive child who covets the same image of perfection.

The second theme is the ‘dissociative’ model of desire, which describes the mechanism for becoming the Black Swan, the possibility of which resides in the sexually mature and sophisticated double we see in the early sequences of the film. The figure of the double is what Jung calls the alter ego (the shadow), the autonomous phantasm of the spilt self, which Nina cannot consciously reconcile as part of herself. The double is part of a different map of relations that facilitate Nina’s transformation from White to Black Swan. The figure of Tomas, the Director, plays the dominant sexual male who sees only the White Swan in Nina, but gives her the lead role after she bites him (‘I can’t believe you bit me’). Like the figure of the mother, Tomas also controls Nina’s body, but does so to subvert the frigid autonomy created by the mother. The figure of Lilly is also central as the adversary, the persona who threatens to usurp her role. She is the perfect embodiment of the Black Swan – sexual freedom and maturity – but lacks the discipline of the White Swan. Both Lilly and Tomas are devices that actively seek to stimulate and augment Nina’s sexual desire.

The theme of dissociation becomes more prominent in the second half of the film as Nina struggles to embody the role of the Black Swan. What seems to drive this process of dissociation is the emerging sexuality of the alter ego, the violent struggle between the child and the temptress. The transformation from White to Black Swan is facilitated by a series of negations: the negation of the mother, Beth, Lilly, and finally, herself. In the ensuing struggle between mother and daughter, Nina resorts to various strategies to resist the mother’s control and to hide the signs of her impending transformation. As her delusions become more prominent, Nina is also confronted by the destruction of perfection, the horribly disfigured body of Beth that transforms into her monstrous double. The Black Swan destroys Nina’s image of perfection. In the final moments of the film, the negation of Lilly represents the final obstacle in her passage to becoming the Black Swan. The real tragedy of this film is the awful realisation that she has destroyed not Lilly, but herself.

Aside from all the clich├ęs that deliberately intensify the horror and confusion between reality and delusion, the most compelling moment of the film is when Nina literally transforms into the Black Swan. Becoming the Black Swan is itself an archetype of transformation; the monstrosity of the child that becomes a swan, the performer that transcends perfection to achieve excellence, is both a tragedy and a triumph. It is here that we are confronted by a fundamental ambivalence about what value we should give this monstrous transformation of the self. It lends itself to two different orientations, one being moral and the other being amoral. The moral reading sees only a tragedy in which the pathologies of will, the sins of the mother and the pressures of the stage are lamentable factors in the production of Nina’s madness. The amoral reading attends to the productivity of this tension between life and death, between transformation and annihilation. The Black Swan, like the birth of tragedy in the Greek tradition, invites us to look into the abyss of human suffering in order to affirm our existence, and to explore the ecstasy and terrifying possibilities of what we can become.

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