Time and time again Darren Aronofsky succeeds in producing films that I can’t watch twice. Try as I might, I just cannot rustle up the will to re-watch any of his movies. Pi bored me almost to tears, Hugh “wolverine forever” Jackman ruined The Fountain, and Requiem for a Dream, despite all of its brilliance, left me with such psychological scars that I cringe just passing it on the shelf at the movie store. Aronofsky’s latest film, Black Swan, continues the trend, though this time its ideological bias is what ultimately renders it best left as a one-time experience.
Which is too bad, because as a movie, it is really well done. I’m a sucker for films featuring mental illness and this one not only capture that angle well, but soared as high as I think Aronofsky’s vision for it would allow. The levels of psychology explored in the mind of the main character, Nina (Natalie Portman) are intriguing without being overblowingly psychotic. On the surface, the storyline is an obvious tragedy: a young woman goes insane while trying to prepare herself for (and ultimately achieving) the so-called “perfect” performance of her career. A technically gifted ballerina, she is given a role where she must embody two characters: the technically perfect and reserved White Swan, and the mysterious, dark, sensual, passionate Black Swan; a literal Jekyll and Hyde of the ballet world.
All this time, her understudy, a girl named Lily, is a “free spirit” who, while lacking technical discipline, embodies the black swan almost perfectly. Nina must then fight not only her own lack of confidence in forgetting all that she has trained for up until this moment (in order to capture the spirit of the black swan), but also the lingering feeling that she may soon be replaced. The key that allows her to finally harmonize that black/white dichotomy in her final performance is an endorphin high brought about by a self-inflicted stab wound to the abdomen - a true Phyrric victory if there ever was one.
Underneath this tragedy, however, feminist themes run strong. The movie draws out scenes that emphasize the degrees to which Nina must go to be perfect: grapefruit-and-egg-white diets (followed by bingeing), weight-watching, a mother who constantly fusses, daily stretching and exercises, early nights filled with restless sleep, and long make-up application sessions. She is a doll in a dollhouse, marched from room to room, from home to rehearsal to stage to back home. "This is not freedom," the film seems to scream, "This is not normal!" The message is conveyed primarily in the scenes in which Nina hallucinates: a hang-nail removal having drastic consequences, a toenail cracking to uselessness, webbed feet, legs bending at odd angles. Her body is falling apart right before her eyes despite all of her attempts at control. Again the message here is clear: This is not worth it and everything will probably not be ok.
If Nina’s control won’t get her to the top, then what will? The answer seeps into nearly every sceme - her sexuality. Black Swan is rife with nods to the third wave of feminism, the lie that full knowledge and experience of feminine sexuality is not only the swiss-army knife of the modern woman, but even that it is the key to ultimate self-realization. While the viewer is told that Nina has has some sexual experiences in the past, for the most part she comes off rather priggish, naive, and sexually self-repressed. Her creepy ballet troupe director believes that breaking that repression will ultimately allow her to embody the sensual black swan, and takes it upon himself to facilitate the transition. He forces himself on her twice, once with a kiss to find out if she is good for the part (she bites him, somehow proving that she is), and another time gropes her and calls it “seduction.” (“See how easy it was for me to seduce you? Now I need you to be able to do that on queue!,” is the “life lesson” there.) I was at once horrified and impressed with the brazen misuse of such a loaded feminine term.
Perhaps most controversial about the movie is that he assigns Nina the “homework” of going home and touching herself, as if “self-discovery” and orgasm apart from relationship is a integral component of well-rounded femininity. To turn some feminist lingo on itself for a moment, it almost seems that the goal is for Nina, as an “animus”, to be a sort of “celibate priest incarnating God as she plays the role of a creator” of the rest of her self. Yet as she writhes on her bed in private, on the screen she remains no more than an object of scopic consumption. There is no power there - only weakness. This preoccupation with her myopic sexual release culminates in a lesbian sex hallucination completely devoid of intimacy. Not only is the act itself over far to soon for any meaningful climax to have been achieved (contributing to the pornographic and therefore exploitive nature of the scene), but its ultimate result is that Nina, thanks to vendrous mental delusions, stole her sense of sexual liberation from her understudy (her fantastical partner) instead of searching it out on her own. But hey, whatever helps fulfill her dream role, right? Don’t let consistency get in the way.
Despite criticisms some leniency may be required - this is, after all, a story about mental illness brought upon by eating disorders and a high-stress lifestyle in a fragile girl. But wait, no. The options that those in authority give Nina as ways to achieve her ultimate goal are ludicrous. Barbie-doll physique? Manipulative authority figures? Selfish sexual empowerment? This kind of ideology is ultimately what makes Black Swan difficult, if not impossible, to watch twice. Even if Nina hadn’t been mentally ill, the pathways that lead to her success are ultimately vapid and devoid of any true character development. That doesn’t make for a rewarding viewing experience. I don’t want to be entertained by being lied to. It’s sad, because the movie was so well done, but this is yet another Aronofsky film that will become but a memory of my twenties.