Black Swan and Art

by on Dec.27, 2010

Thanks to Megan and her interesting post (and the ensuing comment discussion), Joyelle and I went to see The Black Swan yesterday. Needless to say I really loved it. My reading of it is pretty close to Megan’s, though I ultimately don’t see it as much about gender as about art.

I agree with Megan’s observation that the trope of you have to have sex in order to let loose and become an artist is oppressive and pervasive. And, just as importantly, false. Or rather, the “letting loose” that is usually invoked is idiotic – based on a kind of Romantic nature worship, letting yourself be “natural.” Thus all the discussions based on “the authentic” in poetry – “he’s got a good ear” or “he’s the real deal.” I can’t relate to that view of art. I’m way too uptight.

Unlike Megan, I don’t think this movie gives that view of art; quite the contrary. It is true that the Director (Father, Law) wants to bring Nina (Nathalie Portman) into the starring role, both on stage and off (when meeting with donors) by invoking this platitude to accomplish it. And to enter this role, he feels she has to have sex; more specifically, she has to be fucked, to have heterosexual sex. In order to enter into the real of the Father, she has to be made into a heterosexual subject.

[Mirror becomes an “evil eye” of art rather than the mirror of the mirror stage.]

Her “Evil Twin” Lily (the names are almost interchangeable) who is more sexual and smokes (all the classic tropes of the supposedly “liberated” wild child) is much closer to the Father/Director; and she earns that spot by her naturalness – she doesn’t think, she just is (sexual, more adult, grown up etc). She’s the authentic, Nina is the fake.

The movie reverses the typical trope where the rebel/outsider is the sexual one, the smoker. Here the sexual one, “the outsider” is closer to Father. (She is in the end not, what the movie leads us to believe, her evil twin; the evil twin is Nina herself).

But Nina succeeds in the end precisely not by being fucked. She’s a big success, literally transforming herself into a black swan on stage. The way to this success is not by sex, but through a couple of other means: Fantasizing about *homosexual sex* (with Lily) and, much more importantly, fantasizing about killing Lily (Art is Crime, as Joyelle likes to say). Art is fantasizing. She doesn’t actually have sex, but she imagines (homosexual) sex. She performs, but she performs so well she herself can’t tell the real from the fantasy. Art is quite convincing!

I love the fact that the anorexic, uptight girl who refuses to let herself be fucked, who refuses to grow up, to let loose -that that’s the artist, that’s the figure that’s really threatening, that’s the figure who accesses the jouissance of the Black Swan, the Black Art. She doesn’t become daddy’s little princess (except in death).

But she’s also not Mommy’s Little Girl. The monstrous mother figure persistently tries to keep Nina as a child – with toys, pink outfits, “caring.” She won’t let her go out and is horrified when she does run off with Lily. She stays in her room in a horrific scene when Nina masturbates only to realize that her mother – asleep like some kind of dead/scary Hitchcock figure – is alseep in the room with her. Nina has no privacy, no interior. The audience keeps thinking: can’t she just get some space, can’t she just get some chance to fuck and become normal, to get away from all this grotesque self-mutilation, all these wounds wounds wounds.

Mommy is also the mommy of another bird-artist, Hitchcock’s Norman Bates.

I think Megan is right when she writes:

“The instability with which Black Swan approaches self-destruction — at times seeming to fetishize it, at times seeming to mock it (especially at the end) — provides the tension that for me rules the film, and that does so really effectively.”

I’m making things too clear: it’s in that instability, in the collapsed frame, the ridiculous and the fatal, that the movie moves. The Black swan is a ridiculous character, but she’s also the Artist, the artist as a ridiculous, anorexic girl criminal. Decidedly not the typical “real thing” – male, virile, full of ur-energy and booze.

I also love how this decidedly untypical artist generates a kind of excess seldom seen in movies about male heroic artists – the way the narrative collapses, the way blood drips from the ceiling, the way Wynona’s character turns the movie into Ringu, the way Mommy becomes Jack Nicholson in the Shining trying to break in the door (but she’s saying “what’s wrong” or something like that).

As I’ve written before, I’m fascinated by the Anorexic in our culture, in many ways a very abject figure who becomes abject by going through the figure of the Glamorous Thin Girl – becoming too thin, becoming tainted with death and jouissance. And anorexic “hunger artists” abound in this film – not Kafka’s fainting hunger artists, but murderous, back-stabbing, violent hunger artists without tits.

Like Hitchcock’s birds. Like Aase Berg’s guinea pigs. That’s the kind of ridiculous, deathly jouissance of these ballerinas.

I think I will write another post later to address some other topics: wounds and public space, the erotics of the inorganic, the violence of the artificial, the threat of the wax museum, the brilliance of Rodarte, the brilliance of Winona Ryder’s performance.

Also wanted to note that of all the proliferation of film references in this film, the most important are probably to Bergman’s Persona/The Silence (with its homosexual women with slicked back hair and subdued violence). Or to The Shining. Or to Psycho.

Also: I’m reading Keith Richard’s autobiography. He’s clearly someone who espouses the “natural artist” view (Godard is a phony). But he’s also got a really twisted, identificatory relationship to Mick Jagger that reminds me of Nina and Lilly.

27 comments for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    One more thing: I suppose the suicide can be seen as a kind of sex, the blood suggesting her viriginity is broken. But if so, it’s a masturbation (she does it herself) with a mirror, with mimesis, with Art.

    One more thing: from the first attempts at masturbation I had this feeling that I was going to see the horrific masturbation scene from Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (with the broken bottle) and of course that is what happens at the end (sort of).


  2. Johannes

    OK, one more thing (sorry can’t stop thinking about this) – long time ago I wrote about Shutter Island. This movie has the same “garish” almost B-movie-surrealism quality as that movie. Fantasy gets confused with hallucinations. Both end with deaths of sorts. Leo Decaprio gets lobotomized, Nina kills herself. But there are differences: The frame narrative in Shutter Island is very complete; it establishes a definite reality, and a definite sense that the hallucinations are based on an original trauma. But Black Swan doesn’t allow the kind of easy separation of reality and hallucination – the frame narrative collapses, it’s too flimsy. Or, the hallucinations are too garish, cannot be contained by the frame narrative. That’s why everyone seems to disagree on what actually takes place. Also, there’s a big difference between lobotomy and suicide; one makes one a functional member of society and one kills.


  3. Lauren

    ‎”I love the fact that the anorexic, uptight girl who refuses to let herself be fucked, who refuses to grow up, to let loose -that that’s the artist, that’s the figure that’s really threatening…” I quite like this reading of the movie, not least of all because it makes the ending more interesting than it would be if it simply paralleled the White Swan’s suicide in Swan Lake. However, I think most people’s views on the relationship between between female artists & sexuality are so entrenched that they’d be really reluctant to see the movie this way; Nina’s character will only confirm for them what they already thought to be true, that women, women artists especially, will go crazy if they don’t have sex. I say this as someone who really liked the movie and/but left it with the uncomfortable and distraught feeling that that’s what it wanted to suggest to me. I think, for me, the power of the movie lies in the space between what I want it to suggest and what it seems to suggest.

  4. Josef Horáček

    I’ve also been thinking about the end a lot. Many people, including Megan, have gone along with the most straightforward reading: she dies. But as so many parts of the movie, the “fatal” wound allows for multiple readings. After all, the wound looks very vaginal, and I believe this is meaningful.

    Loss of virginity is one possibility. Menstrual blood is another. After all, Nina at the beginning of the movie has barely reached puberty, symbolically speaking.

  5. Janet Holmes

    I like a lot of what I’ve read here regarding the film references, etc. I’m still having a hard time with the “allegory of the artist” — perhaps because I see the allegory stemming more from her embodiment of her art (growing feathers, etc.) than as the performer of choreography (the choreographer = creative artist; the dancer = creative interpreter who needs to let loose sexually). Nina’s success isn’t in her performance, it’s in her embodiment (which is why so many ballerinas become anorexic: to become perfect embodiments of abstract concepts, more or less). That part of the film interests me. Winona Ryder & Natalie Portman both give wonderful performances (as does, I think, Mila Kunis), but overall the film was a disappointment.

    One believable horror moment, not over-the-top: Erica, who’s never danced outside a chorus, tells her daughter, perkily, “You’ll get to dance the pas de quatre again!” It’s a dance in which the four ballerinas perform with their arms interlocked in perfect synchronization, trying to look as much alike as possible, without individuality. It’s a cruel moment.

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  7. Carina Finn

    “The audience keeps thinking: can’t she just get some space, can’t she just get some chance to fuck and become normal, to get away from all this grotesque self-mutilation, all these wounds wounds wounds.” — that was my exact reaction. I was intrigued and horrified by the amount and the intensity of the wounds in the movie, and how they made the narrative collapse. like if nina’s body is a mirror of the narrative, and vice versa, and wounds to one cause wounds to the other. the final wound is inflicted with a mirror, a reflection of the self killing a reflection of the self. I loved all these holes. I’m also obsessed with winona ryder’s drunken-hasbeen- daddy’sprincess act. and the momster. basically just the movie in general.

  8. Johannes

    I totally see your point. There is the definite convention of the dead woman – “perfect” in her death like Ophelia in all those pre-raphealite paintings – that the movie invokes. But I guess what I saw in the movie differently. Perhaps the key is that while I felt throughout a strong desire to see her fucked, to give her some space, to make her normal, ultimately that’s not what I wanted, that’s the urge she refuses to give in to and this to me shows her power.


  9. megan

    johannes, i like this reading; you bring up a lot i hadn’t considered very deeply.
    lauren, i shared the same sort of dis-ease around the film that you articulate so well here. i suppose my discomfort with the film can be reduced to a simple and perhaps unfair mistrust of aronofsky as the visionary. a friend of mine suggested i wasn’t giving natalie portman enough credit for her interpretation of the character – and johannes, your reading here makes a move to do that, giving more power to both portman and her character – i guess i can’t break out of seeing the film as utterly controlled by the director (and thomas), despite the strategies portman/nina use to exert control over their art. i suppose that’s what’s fascinating and actually pretty dead-on about the film.
    i think it’s nina aggressively kissing thomas at the end of her black swan that is the failure for me. i can see it read in several ways but to me it read primarily as her succumbing to thomas’s worldview, and thus her becoming ‘daddy’s little princess,’ after all. i could probably articulate this better with more thought but i have to catch a plane.

  10. Johannes

    Why do you mistrust Arnofsky? Why does it have to be Portman working against Arnofsky? Can’t they work together? Perhaps you have some reason (his past movies), but I don’t see why Arnofsky can’t be given credit (along with Portman) of having created a really interesting movie.

    To me, the Director (of the ballet) is just not a very strong figure for me; in the end he just seems amazed and clueless. I mean she doesn’t get fucked (except by herself), she doesn’t change, she doesn’t loosen up; if anything she becomes more of the kind of person he wants to save her from. But the result is that she blows him away with her performance. And she’s hardly “daddy’s little princess” – she’s full of murderous energy.


  11. Johannes

    And also credit to Winona. Great cameo.


  12. adam strauss

    Nina is–to my heartmind–so clearly a lesbian! She may not get fucked, but she does get gone down on; and this dream/hallucination is not negative, so I take it that the viewer is meant to not see it in the same light as the other hallucinations; and for me the different light/ing makes clear that this scene is legit/healthy/not physcosis. A lesbian as conventionally gorgeous and a star–yesyesyes!

    Whoa: Thomas has a friggin stunnnnning face: talk about perfect for a camera!

  13. Johannes


    Well, I think it’s very significant that it’s a lesbian sex, plus that it’s fake.

    Plus the act that really finally makes her a great artist is not the sex but killing the other ballerina. Or fucking her with a piece of mirror, or fucking herself with a piece of mirror, or turning her entire body into an evil eye, or a cunt, or a wound. (See Joyelle’s posts over the past few months.)


  14. adam strauss

    That it’s technically “fake” sex–yes, ok: tho her response afterward when its dream status is revealed makes it seem more “real” in intensity than any other sexual action, so for me it actually isn’t fake–if that makes any sense. Please say more on why it being lesbian sex is significant! My point was really tangential and just an ecstatic pleasure at her being a lesbian and I feel lesbians are just totally where all is at or should be at.

    I find her final kiss to amazing-face actually pretty nifty–it seemed very in-control to me: intense but not really sexual–full of emotional depth but not really erotic.

  15. adam strauss

    So Winona was the tat-backed gal, right? Wow, I never thought of her as hot and in this she is definitely “all that.”

  16. Johannes

    I think you’re thinking about the other girl. Wynona played the old ballet dancer who stabs herself in the face, gets driven over etc


  17. adam strauss

    Yepyep–makes sense!

  18. abbi dion

    Megan! That moment truly caught me off-guarð, as well. I wish there’d been a camera shot of the audience as Natalie planted a lame/passionate kiss upon the director’s lips. You would have seen a cascade of woe cross my previously entranced face. Followed by a face of: Oh. Right.

    PS: I enjoyed reading these comments, as well as the original post!

  19. Josef Horáček


    I understand your need to see prominent and untypical portrayals of lesbians, but I’d be careful not to fall into the trap of equating one-off gay sex with a gay identity. Especially since we know that that one was a fantasy. Also, what would that reading do for the rest of the movie?

  20. adam strauss

    I think it would in part explain why nothing develops between Black Swan and Phenomenal-face; and because there isn’t any definite sexuality orientation, then I see no reason to let heterosexual hegemony once again take the stage–why revert to the norm when the scenario isn’t normative? Too, the fantasy scene did not strike me as being girl-on-girl to provide pleasure for heterosexuals–too much emphasis on her face (why can’t I remember the character’s name?!) and not enough distance and that very closeness makes, I feel, a sense of intimacy not a dynamic which is flagrantly hot for the watcher. Now I don’t know film theory so my tiny attempt at reading camera-work could easily be naive/uninformed of conventions.

  21. adam strauss

    Josef–I appreciate your using the word “need”–as that is true, and it’s cool that you didn’t write “want” or “desire.”

  22. megan

    abbi! nice to see you in these here parts – yes, i love how you put that reaction.
    johannes, i agree wholeheartedly that aronofsky made an immensely interesting film – i wasn’t discrediting or dismissing the film at all in my comment. it’s one of the more psychologically complex and visually stimulating films i’ve seen, and it invites a number of interesting readings. i’m not against the film, i just find the ending frustratingly problematic. as for my mistrust of aronofsky, well – i’ve developed a hypervigilance and paranoia towards men writing women that i recognize is both unfair and entirely warranted.

  23. adam strauss

    “i’ve developed a hypervigilance and paranoia towards men writing women that i recognize is both unfair and entirely warranted.”—–

    yesyesyes, this is I think an important statement which gets at the “heart” of so much; my hope is that it’s a start from which all sorts of amazing explorations can occur; I’m really interested in the warranted and unfair dialectic.

  24. adam strauss

    JG has written that he loves that it’s the “sexless” (the quotations do not indicate his language; I think he writes un-fucked or somesuch) figure who becomes the black swan; could it, alternately, be that in fact Nina is fuckable/sexual like Thomas wants, but that it’s via lesbian sex, so in fact although he likely inmagines that it is heterosexual practice which is required, that she proves that hetersexuality isn’t the only way to get there; and by this logic–which may be sophistic but I think sohpistry is the best–lesbianism or at-least lesbian practice is the divine catalyst!

  25. Johannes

    No, I didn’t say “sexless” – I actually emphasized the importance that the fantasy was homosexual. This strikes me as important because it’s not the same sexual dynamic as if she would have been fucked by Father/Director (and turned into a “little princess”).


  26. Johannes

    But I also think it’s important that the sex is a fantasy – art, artifice, not “the natural”…


  27. Johannes


    It’s not “unfair” to Arnofsky; it’s unfair to yourself if it keeps you from enjoying a film! But that doesn’t seem to have happened, since you have developed interesting readings of the movie. And if it weren’t for your original post I would never have seen it, so I can’t complain…

    I would say: It’s like if I were to say: I’m not going to give any credit to American writers because they’re xenophobic, something that would be both totally unfair and totally warranted by history. Ultimately this could go so far as that I couldn’t read/watch anything! And also, some of my favorite books/movies would have to be discarded…

    BTW, The Immigrant is a troubling figure in both The Black Swan and Arnofsky’s first movie, Pi. Yet nobody talks about it!

    Maybe I’ll post a separate post about this…