Wednesday 4 May 2011

Black Swan: From the sublime to the... by Michelle Ryan

The following is a piece written by Michele Ryan and relates to our sciSCREENing of The Black Swan last Thursday.

This was a film I was hoping to enjoy – a female protagonist, ballet, wonderful music, madness and melodrama! Unfortunately, I was on the whole disappointed - it is far more conventional and (for want of a better word) ‘patriarchal’ than this. Within postmodern discourse there is much about the ‘return to the body’, subjectivity, intersubjectivity and agency as well as looking at ideas of abjection, subjection and monstrosity. And there are elements of all of these in this film as well as an impressive performance from Portman etc. but the film lacks narrative cohesion and is sloppy in its representation of madness and disintegration.

Some of these points can be highlighted by the comparison between Black Swan and Red Shoes: the British film made by Powell and Pressburger in 1948. In Red Shoes, Moira Shearer (a real dancer) chooses dancing over life and submits to Lehmentov’s ambitions for her and his power and control over her. She then falls in love with the composer and at the end, torn between the competing demands and control of the two men and her own desire to dance, flings herself off the balcony into the path of an oncoming train (shades of Anna Karenina). A melodramatic end to an insoluble crisis born out of a desire that cannot be realised both in society (in the post war period a woman had few rights in marriage, was rarely able to work and all important decisions and powers resided with the husband), and in the construction of film and the potential horror of a woman fully realising her desires. In order to attain her desire she must enter into the world of male power and control and she finds herself powerless to resist that dominance and control so her death is melodramatic because it is inevitable and symbolizes that world where men’s power is often represented on and over women’s bodies.

Black Swan could be viewed as a contemporary re-working of Red Shoes fitting into a ‘postmodern’ 21st century representation. Problematic as that term might be for people, there are many women/feminists writing about film and representation who are attempting to look at the woman/female body – what it embodies, what gets represented (through it, and on it) particularly in relation to ‘the other’, who and what ‘the other’ is and so here it is interesting that in Black Swan a significant ‘other’ is the mother. Some French feminist critics (Kristeva, Iragaray) have focused on the pre-oedipal phase and the relationship to the mother, particularly the rejection of the mother as a prerequisite for the child’s acquisition of language. They argue that this is the space where the female abject body comes into being because there is no way of remaining within that ‘maternal’, connected space without being subjected to hysteria (Freud indicated that the hysteric converts mind to body and translates her fears and repressions into a language of body images), self destruction and annihilation.

However, most of these feminists who are writing within film and cultural theory view this ‘abjection’ as a space for breaking free from the confines of patriarchy or male dominance, a space where liberation can happen, where obsessions, perversions, phobias and the grotesque threaten to destabilise the symbolic order. What’s interesting about Black Swan is that these ideas are present in the film and are referenced in terms of the horror but only shallowly and confusedly. I get the impression that at least one of the writers (all male) had encountered some of these feminist critiques around representation and embodiment possibly through their film theory courses and thrown them in without understanding or exploring them!

Aronofsky chooses to ‘subject’ Portman by only allowing her limited access to his ideas and intentions thereby making her produce a performance which appears to be about abjection and desire but which collapses into a confused set of ideas rarely followed through. This is a film made by a man whose basic resolution of the fear/threat/dilemma of this embodied, abject woman (who can be seen as the dangerous other) is to annihilate her instead of allowing the two (black and white) to merge into a truly powerful woman. As Simone de Beauvoir pointed out in Second Sex woman’s body is the repository both of men's fears and his desires, of his repulsions and his dreams. The psychological ambivalence de Beauvoir describes, informs the cultural identification of the female body with the beautiful and the grotesque, and as an obstacle to the sublime. And it is interesting as well in that what she destroys is her womb or at least the space near that. The female body can and in this film does carry these projections on to it and is both a site of fear, danger, eroticism and liberation depending on who is looking, who is controlling, who has power, who is subordinated and who is subordinating and this is where I think the film fails because it doesn’t realise the potential it has to create a more liberating rhetoric than the one provided trapped as it is by Aronofsky’s desire to subordinate and subdue as well.

As a film within the horror genre Aronofsky wants to ‘creep out’ his audience (his own words) but its representation of the fragmentation and breakdown of ‘self’ is clich├ęd (e.g. the split between black and white, passion and control, desire and repression), the over reliance on mirrors, the lack of a consistent representation of the internal experience of losing ones mind. Black Swan doesn’t go far enough in entering into the psyche of someone who genuinely feels they might be turning into something/someone else, losing a sense of body boundaries and their sense of self in relation to the other. Two films that do are Polanski’s Repulsion and Carine Adler’s Under the Skin. Black Swan, except in a couple of scenes fails to get inside anyone’s head (except perhaps Aronofsky’s) leaving us with vague ideas as to why this breakdown is happening - she’s a dancer, used to pushing her body to the limits so we have to infer she is pushed beyond her limits because a man has told her she is not able to be herself, reach the sublime until she lets her Black Swan in!

Finally as a number of people pointed out its representation of madness, self destructiveness and psychosis do very little to help us understand such states or attempt to represent them in a meaningful way.

This is a movie that touches on fears of penetration, of our body, fears of being supplanted in the affections of a powerful man, love of perfection, love of dance, and perhaps most importantly of all, passionate and overwhelming desire/hatred of the mother but ultimately this film was too scared to delve deeper into those dangerous waters.

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