January 3, 2011 at 8:58 am, by Timna Burston
Black Swan is an indescribable movie. It leaves you panting, shocked, throws down your defenses and makes you ache for more pain. If I am to try and sketch it in broad strokes, it is a movie that focuses on the psychological drama of a ballerina grappling with becoming the White Swan and the Black Swan in Swan Lake. I say ”becoming” rather than ”playing“ or ”dancing” because the character struggles with crawling into the skin of these fictional creatures, as she herself faces her own demons: her own obsession with perfection, an overly-intimate and co-dependant relationship with her mother, and the question–can she unleash these two aspects of her: the graceful, fragile White Swan who dies for love, and the passionate, destructive Black Swan who steals her love away?
It took me a long time to write this, because frankly, I felt there was so much to write about I couldn’t possibly begin to choose. What I have come up with is not so much a clear treatise, but a list of questions that have haunted me about the movie to tease the reader with. I urge you to watch this movie and grapple with these questions yourself.
In Hebrew, we talk about the Yetzer a lot – but what is the Yetzer? Literally, it means the urge, the inclination, the driving force. We separate Yetzer Hatov, the Good Urge, from Yetzer Harah, the Bad Urge. It is interesting that Hebrew does not call it the urge to do evil or good, but personifies the urge itself as inherently good or bad. Over the years, people have described being overcome by the Bad Urge, battling it, as though it aims to possess them. I see the Black Swan and the White Swan in the movie as the protagonist’s urges–not necessarily good or bad, so much as the urge to live life with wanton abandon and passion versus the urge to live life with grace and perfection. The character is given the impossible task of embodying both of these urges, and the movie becomes a kind of emotional battlefield, where these urges attack each other, leaving the ballerina’s body and soul scarred and broken. The movie also calls into question our own urges as viewers: We enjoy the visually breathtaking footage even as we cringe at the measures the ballerina must take to make them a reality. We are a part of the system that calls on her to destroy herself to achieve perfection. It haunted me personally with memories of dancers I have known, all of whom have suffered through injuries and battled pain in the name of beauty.
The movie is rife with rivalry among women. The premise of Swan Lake is a rivalry between the Black Swan and the White Swan. This rivalry is mirrored by the conflict within the company between the young ballerina who is cast as the lead (played by Natalie Portman), and a young ballerina who has just joined the company (played by Mila Kunis. In addition, the protagonist fights against the memory of the company’s long-standing star (played by Winona Ryder), who is forced into retirement by the protagonist’s arrival. An even more disturbing is the dynamic between the protagonist and her mother, a failed ballerina who relives her dreams through her daughter? And of course, the protagonist’s inner struggle can be seen as a kind of battle between her inner black and white swans battling it out. This conflict, a rivalry among women, reminds me of several examples within the Torah: Sarah’s cruelty in ousting Haggar to achieve primacy in Abraham’s life; Rachel and Leah, each with their own claim to Jacob’s heart, as sisters who spend their life competing for one man. In the world of the Bible, there is often one man for two women and they compete for his attention, his sexual offerings, the rights of their children to raise as heirs. In these competitions, the cruelty of otherwise exalted figures, such as Sarah, is revealed, and the ties between women, even sisters, are destroyed. Indeed, Black Swan is such a battle, where the cunning of women is employed to manipulate and destroy, to cajole and seduce, and the men are almost irrelevant–the battle is one of a need for primacy in power and beauty. The men (the prince in Swan Lake, the head of the company in Black Swan) serve only to mirror the inner struggles of the protagonist learning about herself: Does she have the power to be perfect? Will she destroy, or be destroyed?
Age and Youth -
Another important theme of the movie, which ties into the idea of rivalry is the question of aging, one that is particularly relevant for ballerinas, who rely on their body for their career. In the movie, two characters represent what happens to a ballerina when her career ends: the protagonist’s mother, and the former star of the company. Each of these characters is lost in a world of pain and inflicts pain on the young protagonist in different ways. The protagonist and her mother have a relationship that eludes explanation, because it touches on real love in the most destructive way. The mother is both a truly loving and caring mother, and, at the same time, a smothering monster who relies on her young daughter to live the life she never had. The fading star of the troupe, on the other hand, is full of fire and fury, crazed at the idea that she has been usurped. At the same time, she is the protagonist’s role model; the protagonist passionately wants to be her, stealing her makeup, her dressing room, her throne. And even as she does these things, she is scared of becoming the star, as this marks the pinnacle of her career, from which she can only decline. In short, the protagonist is marked by one of the most ancient curses, that of the young heir. The heir must fight against what was once his family, sometimes committing unspeakable acts against his own kin in the name of rising to the throne. Like the kings of the Book of Kings, who repeatedly attack their own family members to achieve more and more power, the protagonist must break free and indeed hurt her own role models to confirm her place in the world. And once she has reached the top, she must await the inevitable–someone new, young and powerful to come and steal her crown.