Beware of spoilers.
I’m surprised nobody’s brought up Black Swan yet, the new Aronofsky film starring Natalie Portman as an overcontrolled frigid ballerina who must learn how to be sexual in order to make great art. I generally love Aronofsky for his grandiosity and adolescence, his willingness to tunnel into black holes of self-destruction and his refusal of reprieve. 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. But the way in which Aronofsky connects self-destructive and pathologized sexuality is pretty clichéd in both Black Swan and its companion piece, The Wrestler, and both films’ protagonists are gendered in really heavy-handed ways especially with regard to their sexualities.
I can’t decide whether this execution of cliché is interesting or just disappointing. On the one hand, both characters epitomize heteronormativity turned in on itself: Nina, Portman’s character, is in a certain way so highly feminized she (apparently) must also be desexualized (passive, innocent, naïve, virginal (though it’s unclear whether she is, in fact, a virgin)), whereas Randy in The Wrestler is in a certain way so highly masculinized he (apparently) must also be hypersexualized (carnal, virile, irresponsible, wild, found at strip bars when not in the ring) — with both sexualities pathologized to signal the characters’ difficulties connecting with reality and other people.
(Interestingly, the “good” sexuality in Black Swan is taken up by Lily, Nina’s “bad” doppelganger, whose freeness with her body puts Nina’s supposed frigidity in relief — but Lily and her “good” sexuality are also portrayed to a certain extent as fantasy, an extension of Nina’s imagination. In The Wrestler, Marisa Tomei’s character takes up the space of the “good” sexuality — she’s sensual and free with her body, but also she has a kid and is responsible and emotionally stable.) All the old clichés of gender (femininity = innocent, passive, frigid; masculinity = carnal, active, virile) rest on these characters and importantly, turn them into tragic figures. This is interesting.
On the other hand, the fact that both sex without love (in Randy’s case) and art without sex (in Nina’s case, although, again, there is some uncertainty surrounding Nina’s sexual history) are indicative of general malaise and pathology suggests that Aronofsky’s films are really actually pretty invested in espousing a normalcy that these characters are punished (via their deaths) for not attaining. This is disappointing.
What is frustrating and provocative about Black Swan is the difficulty of pinning down the film’s perspective on itself. Thomas, the chauvinist ballet director, does not go uncriticized, but his certainty that Nina must explore her sexuality before she can convincingly dance as the black swan in Swan Lake seems to be a certainty shared by the film. She’s repeatedly called frigid by Thomas; “Do you want to fuck this girl?” (I’m paraphrasing from memory), he asks her male ballet partner, implying that her partner shouldn’t, because Nina’s performance isn’t sexy enough, because Nina isn’t all that interested in sex. The presumption of the film is that disinterest in sex automatically means sexual repression, which automatically means aesthetic blockage. Art must be erotic, according to these terms. This is stupid.
Of course, it might be argued that the problem of the film is not that Nina can’t ‘feel,’ but that Nina believes Thomas: she believes that she will be ‘perfect’ if she can learn how to let go. The ending points to this reading, but I’m resistant to its attendant cruelty towards its character, just as I’m resistant towards Flaubert’s cruelty towards Madame Bovary.
Black Swan’s portrayal of sexual repression and art, as well as its portrayal of grotesque mother-daughter codependence echoes The Piano Teacher a great deal (the novel; been a while since I’ve seen the movie). The crucial difference is that The Piano Teacher understands art as a way of channeling sexual repression as opposed to seeing sexual repression as invariably thwarting artistic possibility. Even if Jelinek is in many ways horrifically (and amusingly) cruel towards Erika, she does not portray her protagonist as so terrifyingly naïve as Aronofsky or Flaubert do theirs. That is the real horror of Black Swan: that anyone can be so naïve to a world that wants to eat her.
In tandem, The Wrestler and Black Swan seem to suggest a crisis in both masculinity and femininity – presenting specifically feminine and specifically masculine forms of abjection — the abjection of being perfect at certain performances of gender that have become obsolete. So their characters must, according to the logic of the films, self-destruct. For Nina, though, this self-destruction — her loss of self in becoming-swan — is her transformation — the goal of the film is for her to lose herself, which she does, and in so doing, must die.
I think a lot about the problem of ending in narrative: of resisting transformation, epiphany, and instead producing a kind of strategic overdeterminism that kills off characters who are not fit to survive in a world that’s fucked. My own work is pretty fatalistic, deterministic, nihilistic – opening up lines of flight and then stubbornly tying them off, their outstretched fingers mercilessly amputated at the knuckle. But the world isn’t actually like that, or at least projects like It Gets Better declare that it isn’t, that there are viable life paths available. Which model of the world is more politically potent? By emphasizing the fact that the world is not made for certain people, as opposed to emphasizing the loopholes that only certain people will ever be able to find, we focus on what needs changing: the world, not the marginalized people who are unable to find their way in it. By emphasizing the loopholes, the resistances, we are sharing survival strategies.
I think what bugs me about Black Swan is that Nina’s self-destruction is not motivated by anything I care about. Well, I care about art, but I don’t care about art that destroys its creator. Well, okay, that’s interesting! But you know, in this film, I just wasn’t convinced. Nina’s self-destruction is not motivated by her character or the very real horrors of her world, but by a flimsy psychological horror plot showcasing remarkable visual effects. Her suicide is dumb, a mistake, which makes it laughable. Ha. I guess?