The Dark Sexual Meta-Politics of the “Black Swan”

Once again availing myself of the pleasure of New Orleans’ Prytania Theatre, I saw Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” for the first time last night (opening night at the Prytania….pre-Oscar run I suppose). The line between the dreamworld and the real world is blurred—readers of this blog may have noticed that this is my favorite movie and dramatic theme and subject line, from Plato’s Cave (Republic Book VII) through Calderon de la Barca’s “La Vida es Sueno” to Lewis Carroll “through the looking-glass”, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia through the Wardrobe and the Lake between the worlds, Matrix, and Total Recall.  Black Swan follows in this tradition as a dark movie with very little light.  I confess that as of the writing of this I haven’t read any other reviews of it so the thoughts here are my own, untethered by other critical thoughts. The subtitle of this movie could be either: “After many seasons dies the swan” or “The Tragic Ritual of Divine Kingship: succession and passion, murder and sacrifice, among the heirs of Pavlova.”

Arguably my alma-mater’s most beautiful and talented alumna ever, at least of anyone whom I ever chanced to encounter at Lamont, the Fogg, Sackler, Tozzer, Peabody, or Agassiz at any time during any of my many and varied Cantabrigian years, Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, an aspiring ballerina in a City never expressly identified as New York, but where the blazes else could it be?  with a company never expressly identified as the New York City Ballet, but what other ballet troop uses Lincoln Center as its symbolic and practical home base?

Natalie’s character Nina seems to be a victim attacked and probably doomed from every angle.  The tension from the beginning seems to be: who is Lena’s evil Wizard? Her sharply ambitious mother Erica Sayers (played flawlessly by Barbara Hershey as a kind of evil twin to “Leave it to Beaver’s” mother—there are a lot of light/dark pairings in this movie—but that’s not really one of them) with her increasingly piercing eyes and comments?  The potentially and historically predatory Ballet Director Thomas Leroy with his aggressive, but apparently (possibly?) merely heuristic sexual aggression??  Or the obvious competitor, another more relaxed, laid back and highly sexual balerina Lily?

In other words, this movie invokes every major cliche of sexual politics in the modern world.  It is beautifully filmed and focused in alternating light and shadows and quite simply could not have been completed with any other actress, because I cannot think of any other young actress whom I personally (or the world) could stand to look at from every possible angle up close….  But it is impossible to get bored with Natalie Portman’s face, even when her expressions are ambiguous-to-inscrutable.  As it turns out, the incomprehensible nature of Natalie’s character Nina turns out to be no mistake, but the essence of the story.

I have long been extremely suspicious of sexual politics as an explanatory device for human failure and self-destructive tendencies.   I am most suspicious of stories of sexual harassment and sexual predation against younger females by male superiors and supervisors.  Up to a point, I think that such hierarchy is fairly natural and normal in the world.  But refreshingly, in this movie at least, the “outward and visible signs” of Director Tom Leroy’s sexually aggressive moves towards Nina are entirely instructional—as a Director, and only as a director, Tom wants Lena to put more passion into her dancing, and he feels she cannot do this unless she “feels” sexual desire more deeply herself.  Beside a couple of kisses, which seem just to end up as demonstrative professorial exercises trying to awaken something inside of Nina, nothing happens between them.  Director Tom simultaneously abjectly fails and even more abjectly succeeds, to no good end.   The line in St. Francis’ prayer “only in dying are we born to eternal life” comes to mind.

The elder “Dying Swan” Beth MacIntyre (it is insinuated without being articulated) was once Director Vincent’s lover.  But what does this mean or matter?  Nina longs to be like her.  Nina even steals Beth lipstick and other objects, but later guiltily returns them. Within the portrayal of Swan Lake, and the Ballet–she is the former star—back to Lake Nemi she is the only Priest, awaiting the new arrival of the next Rex (Regina?) Nemorensis.

Nina’s mother figure is likewise ambiguous.  Erica Sayers is domineering but kind, commanding but caring.  She claims to have sacrificed herself and her own ballet career.  She is an obsessive painter but above all she has invested her maternal and creative energies in her daughter Nina.  Erica restrains and represses Nina and does not want her to achieve the passionate release which Tom considers necessary to Nina’s apotheosis into a “Diva” of the Ballet.

Most intriguingly: Lily—Lily and Nina are a pair most reminiscent of Faith and Buffy in the Season III of Joss Whedon’s TV Series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). Faith was Buffy’s dark, sexual, rule-breaking and authority disrespecting “instinct rather than training-based” twin slayer.   The nightclub dance seen prior to Nina’s final “seduction” could be clipped and merged, almost seamlessly, with the parallel nightclub dance scene in Season III of BtVS called “Bad Girls” where Buffy and Faith go wild (or, rather where Faith tempts and draws Buffy into the wild scene for a while, and almost into Faith’s plunge towards the Dark Side).

The context of the story of Lena Thayer is the competition for the leading role in Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” with all its magic and romantic intrigue made real in the modern City and Ballet company.   Lily, like Tom, tries to awaken lust and a sense of looseness in Nina, and her success parallels Tom, with equal ambiguity.

Ultimately, the story reveals Nina as her own black swan, her own shadow in the mirror, her own crowning achievement and tragic undoing in denouemente.

The Metapolitical message here is that yes, Freud was right that we are all screwed up in the head by our sexuality, but no, we can’t escape the consequences of our choices of our other actions.  None of us can see clearly, we see only through a glass, darkly, because we think, act, and speak only as children.  Also consistently Freudian is the message that sexual repression is the root of all evil.  What can we do but laugh and cry at the insistent repetition of these assertions throughout the world?

If there is a “moral” it must be that we all must engage in self-discovery, but that there is no necessary triumph or salvation through self-mutilation and death, even when it helps us achieve amazing goals which otherwise we could not have realized.  Our dreams reflect our dark side—our dreams shape our dark side—but without a proper control of light and shadow, we can neither see who we really are no who we ever should be, nor do what we should, nor know what we need to know without fully encountering our dark shadow selves—and this is why Freudian Psychology is eternally inferior to that of Carl Gustav Jung.

2 responses to “The Dark Sexual Meta-Politics of the “Black Swan”

  1. Barbara Anne K-H

    I recently saw the Black Swan. I found your review interesting and insightful. Ditto for The King’s Speech. I hope that I will enjoy more such reviews from you in the future since you definitely have a talent for writing them.

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