Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a delightfully ridiculous, overheated mish-mash of icy melodrama, betrayal, paranoia, and madness, concluding with the unmistakable message that artists must, above all, die for their craft. That they should step on, over, and through lesser mortals to reach the pinnacle is a given, but now, we have the next logical move – perfection means no one is left alive, including the performer. Especially the performer. That the individual is pushed to the brink of sanity is precisely the point. Run to the edge, reflect on one’s achievement, and jump off. Only there won’t be a mattress to cushion your fall. It’s Aronofsky’s The Wrestler all over again, only with the highbrow substitution of ballet for cage matches with juiced up clowns. In the end, it’s all the same, and utter submersion is the only real goal. Hesitate, and all is lost. An identity – a very reason for being – is not possible. It’s why so few us achieve anything worth a damn. Content with merely getting by, the assorted drones and dolts that make up humanity do their best, yes, and play by the rules, but following scripts to the letter never made the papers. And, like Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), all the pain and blood and murderous impulses laid bare will not play well for an evening performance. Best to leave it all – life, limb, and soul – for the matinee.
So yes, Nina’s rise to the lead role of Thomas Leroy’s (Vincent Cassel) typically turtlenecked interpretation of Swan Lake is the umpteenth twist on the beginning and end of any conversation about unchecked artistic ambition, All About Eve, but it’s the one we needed to complete the cycle. As Nina pushed aside the has-been Beth (Winona Ryder), so too would Nina have been eclipsed were it not for her masterstroke of self-slaughter. Do the best they’ve ever seen, and leave them with frustrated “what ifs” falling from their quivering lips, as if to say that we all should curl up and die once we’ve left the world our gift. Only most of us have nothing to give. Nina is not such a person. She is a dancer, yes, but that is to minimize what she brings; she dances where most of us breathe, and her down time is not only wasted time, but completely unnatural to her state of being. As such, she’s like a little girl every moment she isn’t immersed in her craft. It’s like the brilliant author who gave us the Great American Novel, then retreated to the shadows because he never learned how to dress himself. Or the master director who produced a cinematic landmark, only to spend the rest of his days at the buffet table in an orgy of self-hatred. Genius rarely allows for the trivialities of life as lived.
Thankfully, Black Swan contains other layers beyond the die-for-my-artistic-sins stranglehold, including one of modern cinema’s most twisted familial relationships since little Sarah Polley bedded her own father among the haystacks in The Sweet Hereafter. How appropriate that the yanked-tight visage of Barbara Hershey sit in for this bizarre little marriage between the matriarchs of Carrie and Sybil, crafting the sort of maternal duty not above requiring young Nina to account for every waking minute not under her thumb. Mom is there knocking at the bathroom door, interrupting bath-time’s self-pleasure, along with adopting the persona of every sexual fantasy Nina stoops to conquer. Nina, having never developed a sexual sense of self due to suffocating parentage, will only come alive, later, when she inflicts a wound unmistakable in its vagina-like gasp, but so long as mother hovers like a sadomasochistic vulture, she will fail to meld the artistic drive with sexual rapaciousness. For those who create, then, taking – full blown and unapologetic – is the only response to being awake. Mom takes, but her ambitions refuse to leave the depressing homestead, resulting in artistic paralysis. Instead, her painting wilts on the vine of irrelevance; a self-directed howl without consequence or purpose. She feeds on her weaker daughter because she hasn’t the talent to declare total war.
Much has been made of Nina’s lesbian fantasies and whether these invite self-destruction, but it’s less about the target of her conflicted desires than a general expression of long-buried passions. She’s never wanted anything, really, beyond the stage, and unless she can incorporate her lust into her dance, she’s adrift in a truly unfamiliar sea. It’s understandable, then, that her initial offering in the sexual realm is as passive recipient, that is, until she learns to take a nibble from Mr. Leroy’s lip. At that point, she becomes the black swan, sure, but also an engaged member of the pain/pleasure fraternity. What point is there to flesh-filled indulgence unless someone stumbles from the scene, wounded and dumbfounded? Again, it’s why mom is always there in both spirit and fact whenever the urge rises, for at bottom, Nina can only become the dancer she needs to be if mom is vanquished, preferably with a grand gesture of humiliation. It’s a version of the old nugget that one is never truly independent until one’s parents are tucked in the grave. For some it’s more alone than secure in a sense of self, but that’s just the sentiment talking.
Lest all of this sound ponderous and top heavy with despair, it needs to be reiterated again and again that Black Swan is, in its own twisted way, a dark comedy, and laughs are not only not out of place, but encouraged. Taking this all in with a grim, teeth-clenching seriousness is to miss the point entirely. Sure, death being the only assurance of immortality is a somber reflection, but that’s for the artist, not the outsider. Few would ever take such silliness as hard truth, but it’s why we’re in the audience, while they sweat and moan on the stage for our amusement. We have less skin in the game, of course, and happily dispense with our momentary heroes with all the effort it takes to muster a whim, but what of the dispatched? They die a thousand times with every failure and rejection, while we stand on high ready to make or break the next ingénue. It’s a power the artist never really understands, so they eat their own to compensate. Failing that, they become the object of pity and scorn, hoping that will be a detour to lasting acceptance. Being on top, then, means never having another opportunity to let them down. It’s another world altogether – the world they have created and sustained – and if there’s a hint of envy, it can only be at the full realization of our own unwillingness to strut so close to the darkness. They do it again and again, always and forever full of the sturm and drang so absent in the mundane.