Black Swan – Darren Aronofsky and philosophy porn or how jouissance gives and takes life. (Film review)

 

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An unadulterated philo-fest, for the lay film philosopher, there is no doubt that Black Swan is one of the best things to hit the cinema in years. So many philosophical points of view are immaculately represented, culminating in the directors enormous courage in the bent-leg scene, a shocking moment similar to the break in film of Bergman’s Persona, that pushes the boundaries of the visual image far past what an audience is comfortable with. Despite the inevitable guffaws from a typical audience, the Nietzschean Apollonian / Dionysian split, the Schopenhauer’s principle of individuation, Dostoyevsky’s double, Freud’s ego triumvirate split, Carl Jung’s shadow, Lacan’s object petit a, and Cixous’ transition from jouissance to ecriture feminine is all here, laid out feast like, in a perfectly edited, superbly performed visual orgy that sees the culmination of what Aronofsky can do brought to a bubbling and chaotic surface. His courage in Black Swan is enormous, and it is possible that it extends from the critical and commercial success of The Wrestler, a film that proves Aronofsky can “make” an ordinary film and make it well, but knows what he is doing when he doesn’t. Black Swan is Aronofsky’s magnum opus and it famously earned him academy award nominations for best director and best film, and won one for Portman for best actress – a highly deserved acknowledgement.

The only person standing in your way is you

Where The Wrestler was a point of departure in writing credits that may have not served Aronofsky so well, taking up Andres Heinz script was a stroke of brilliance, obviously engulfing the director in territory with which he was familiar and comfortable. There are many similarities with other notable film works, particularly the aforementioned Bergman’s Persona, Polanski’s Repulsion and of course Powell and Pressburgers 1948 version of The Red Shoes.  Aronofsky perfectly melded his influences with his style to bring a dense, lucid script to exciting life. As a post-Lacanian fan of French feminist theory (there’s a mouthful for you) it was very exciting to see Black Swan, a perfect embodiment of Lacan’s jouissance as translated by Helene Cixous involving the passionate mysticism females embody as a way finding their creative selves in an environment of patriarchy. Of particular fascination is the displayed relationship between Nina (Portman) and Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) who, at the surface appears to be appropriating Nina, colonizing her, but on a second viewing is actually being used by Nina to achieve her own plans. When Thomas kisses her and she bites him, rather than acquiesces, we already know she will do anything to get the part, and yet she reads Thomas perfectly knowing her “bite” will impress more than the spread of her legs. When he teases her with his sexuality, it is to her fascination with another woman (herself) that she turns to find the sexual release and the path to creative fulfillment, preferring instead to observe Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) and take notice of the true cause of her demise. Nina’s refusal of Thomas, the refusal of his power (and he has complete power over her) his phallus, is her devotion to her art. In other words, Nina refuses to appropriate the phallus over art, choosing the madness of intense creative fulfillment instead.

Black Swan (18)

Black Swan is, a film that examines the ruthless, unrelenting drive in females through the lens of genius and art, and to Aronofsky’s credit, he retains this in the representational distance we have to deal with as we witness the ware wolf like transition of Nina (Natalie Portman). We are kept distanced by Aronofsky’s usual tricks of style, though in Black Swan he goes all orgiastic on  metaphor, so the film is overloaded with ballet mirrors, black and white dichotomies, and a clichéd melodrama that diverts one into thinking the film focuses in on feminine hysteria. But this is the “old” Aronofsky, abandoned (to his detriment I argue) in The Wrestler, back again, tossing oblique analogies intended to divert as much as enhance, using the clichés of “hysteria” against themselves to reveal a deeper examination of what the old, inadequate terminology has come to mask. Like The Wrestler, Black Swan ends up being a dark humanistic celebration of art, and as Aronofsky said himself, The Wrestler is a companion piece to Black Swan, the first being about forcing the body to shape to the lowest art form and the second is about shaping the body to the highest art form. The distance we feel from Nina is a resistance of a feminised cliché and a commentary on the world of ballet itself that always keeps its audience at arms length. If wrestling is so interesting because it deeply includes its audience (to the point that The Ram will die for them), ballet is distanced from its audience with the same fervor, seeing them simply as meal tickets to enhance the art and grisly witnesses to its demands. Ballet is a notoriously closed, self-involved world. If we feel like we don’t really know Nina, it is because she shuts us out, where The Ram was seeking for someone to bring close.

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Nina’s cry that she seeks perfection is instantly recognisable as the voice of our personal double, and requires no back story nor explanation, even if that alienates the viewer and holds Nina at a distance. The same drive is in her mother, whose act of creative perfection is her daughter. Mothers and daughters and artistic creation is a theme regularly visited – think of Haneke’s film adaptation of Elfride Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher – and always involves the incestuous trap of the overbearing parent and the virginal perfect child whose only outlet is their creative genius. Aronofsky doesn’t just depict a female lead (the first time he gives a film wholly and completely to a woman) he smashes the conventions of femininity with his unabashed celebration of the exclusively feminine driving creative force. This female doesn’t create from a womb “made” fertile with a male seed, she creates from her minds perfect control of her body, and unlike Isabelle Hupperts Erika, experiences no confusion, no acquiescence at the foot of her Mother, no capitulation in the arms of a phallic master, no subservience to her double despite her battles. Nina embraces, willingly and completely everything she needs without hesitation in her carnivorous drive toward perfection. She will even go so far as to incorporate a wild night out before a crucial rehearsal, the usurping of her idol and the inclusion of a fall early in the key performance to reach the sublime heights she envisions.

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Unlike The Wrestler, sentimentality is absent from Black Swan, and this point, seeing as Black Swan is a companion piece to The Wrestler enhances the overt sentimentality of the masculine film. Aronofsky uses masculine cinematic tropes to present Nina, just as he uses feminine to present The Ram, all the while wrapping each character in a performance style that speaks to their gender stereotypes. By the end of The Wrestler, the feminine qualities of The Ram and his broken relationships are his mantle, while Nina becomes more determined, rejecting the safety of her mother and emotionally distant as she achieves in Black Swan. Both will die in a surreal leap that may or may not kill them, but we know will cause the death of something inside. For The Ram this death is an acceptance, for Nina this death is welcome because she has achieved her purpose. For both, their death is the realisation of their lifetime of work.

More and more Aronofsky’s visuals touch at the intellect because of his uncanny ability to choose to distort the right symbols that spark our subconscious. Aronofsky is in an intimate conversation with his audience, and his respect for their viewing capacity far exceeds what he is usually rewarded with. I have only touched of the surface of what Black Swan does here, but there is little doubt it is a film that will be talked about for many decades to come.

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