Laura Mullen on The Black Swan

by on Dec.30, 2010

[Laura Mullen wrote this response on my facebook page, and I thought it was really astute so I am posting it here:]

A thrilling and extremely unsettling frottage across layered binaries, Aronofsky’s Black Swan is *possibly* one of the most powerful feminist films of the decade if not the (so far) century. Obviously the film is an important addition to a long tradition of dance films, mostly for and about women: it’s clearly in conversation with Michael Powell’s 1948 masterpiece The Red Shoes, whose hectic fevered eeriness it escalates. But half a century has gone by and the exploration of the way in which a rigorous and heavily stylized art form (ballet) both allows for and deforms women’s sexuality has taken a drastically darker and more savage turn–although (and this will destabilize feminist claims for the film) we haven’t managed to change the ending. What’s new here is the way Aronofsky uses the jagged edge of each reflection / comparison, so that the tired tale of woman-as-commodity has the fast vicious bloody pace of an ugly bar fight. (That strobe light dance sequence in the club, all red and black, is the secret pace of the film as a whole–just what the choreographer, with his exquisite French impatience, is trying to hold his slow star to…) A strobe light might be, in fact, the secret method or measure of the film as a whole: good / evil, black / white, old / young, innocent / experienced, alive / dead, clean / dirty, whole / broken, hetero / homo–and so on (off / on / off…)–flash each against their opposite so quickly that, in my experience, the subject who watches comes close to knowing the situation of the subjectivity watched. In the bathroom, after, I swear I thought I saw a splash of blood where…it wasn’t–and it took me awhile to stop shaking. (I’m not sure I’ve fully stopped.) This is a Director (and a writer) who knows something about what it means to lose body–and mind–in the effort to be perfect, as perfection appears to shrink to a brutally sharp (penetrating) point. But is the virgin / whore binary really complicated here or only (once again) exploited better than it’s ever been before? “Was I good?!” One character calls out to someone who only dreamed of being loved: the answer is yes / no.

6 comments for this entry:
  1. Lara Glenum

    >>”But is the virgin / whore binary really complicated
    >>here or only (once again) exploited better than it’s
    >>ever been before?”

    Having not seen the film, I can say the question of exploitation/voyeurism looms large for me. Natalie Portman masturbating, girl-on-girl sex scenes–I’m very curious to see how exactly the hetero male gaze gets fucked with/disrupted/denied.

    “…the subject who watches comes close to knowing the situation of the subjectivity watched.” That would be totally freaking magnificent! Eager to see for myself.

    Laura, I’ll be back in BR next week–are you interested in seeing it again?

  2. LM

    Yeah, I’d see it again to see it again through your eyes: I think it’s wronger than I saw it–in some inter-estin’ ways…
    But the dream of sleeping w/ the rival: that’s new–and important…

  3. Johannes Göransson


    I like the observation about the strobe effect. But at the same time it’s not that we’re getting into the mind of a “character” – with the normal trappings of psychology, interiority etc – but we are infected by the Art of it, the intensity catches so to speak. It seems the choreographer thinks art comes from interiority, but Nina catches the blackness, catches the whiteness as if it were an energy. She doesn’t ever seem to think about the Black Swan as a character (which would be absurd!) but as body and imagery and art. This is what I was trying to get at when I posted about the similarity to Jäderlund’s work and the idea of “intense allegory.”


  4. Johannes Göransson

    Also Laura, don’t tell me you’re going to be judging art based on “wrongness” (and rightness)… If The Black Swan is wrong, I don’t want to be right…


  5. Johannes Göransson


    What appeal to you about the theory of the gaze? I think in this case, in particular, it seems like it can’t keep up with the jerks and spasms between revulsion and pleasure.


  6. Lara Glenum

    O I’m all about jerks and spasms between revulsion and pleasure! See my note above for the answer to this question.