Black Swan was one of those films I didn’t really want to see, but felt obligated to because of the reception its getting. But as someone who isn’t a horror fan, is/was a dancer and has sex with women, it seemed like a recipe for stuff I don’t care about getting it wrong.
Having seen it today, I’m still pretty ambivalent about it — in fact, I am grateful for how little it spoke to me personally — but I can say this: it didn’t get it wrong. At all.
The necessary full disclosure before I continue this is as follows: I was never a ballet dancer. I was never training to be a ballet dancer, although I did study ballet and do pointe work. My main focus was modern dance, particularly Martha Graham technique, and I was one of those people whose technique and athleticism were not perfect, but oh, I could make you watch me.
Black Swan is a horror film in the tradition of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. It’s about what’s real, external, supernatural horror, and what is a product of the mind. It’s a style of narrative that I understand both the appeal and horror of, but that has little interest for me. Everything I do is about the fine, fine line between fiction and non-fiction and to me what is interesting about liminal spaces isn’t confusion but overlap.
However, Black Swan is also a narrative about ambition, fear, mentorship, the rivalries of women, and what it means to be a dancer, a ballet dancer. And on those points, it nails the story its striving to tell.
The super, super weird thing about being a dancer is that you spend every, single second of the day making your body capable of extraordinary acts of beauty. It becomes a machine in serve to your art. And yet, it is never, ever yours. It is the dance’s, the teacher’s, the choreographer’s, the company’s, the director’s, and that of every single person who pushes you to do what it is a single hair from impossible.
Black Swan gets to that lack of self-ownership fast, and it’s not pleasant to watch. Because Black Swan isn’t about the beauty of submission or the (arguably) necessary brutalization of self in pursuit of high artistic success. It’s about abuse, debasement and the desire to disappear, not just into the work, but from the world. If you give up everything for the work, do you even exist without it?
The film is smart, stunningly so. As Nina seems to be slowly overtaken by the black swan, her skin ripples with goosebumps eager, it seems, to disgorge feathers. If you’ve ever been around a dancer as thin and spare as a ballerina must be, you know their flesh prickles like this easily at the cold — it’s damn hard to stay warm with virtually no body fat. The damage to legs, to feet; the issues of perfection versus desire; the self-abuse in the form of substances, sex, self-injury, and starvation; the acceptance of cycles of abuse, claiming, and disregard from others — if you’ve ever danced the way I danced, you’ve seen that stuff if you haven’t been involved in it yourself.
But here’s the thing — I don’t want to say that every dancer goes through this. I really, really don’t. And perhaps that’s why I’m so surprised that this film is such a success: why aren’t people angrier about this picture? Not of dancers, but of women? Can’t we have powerful female sexuality without it being the end of the world? Or mentors who use instead of elevate? Or women who are not starving, metaphorically or literally for love? Isn’t there any story of female ambition that isn’t about brutal, destructive, grade-school style rivalry? I get that good stories are all about anguish and extremes, but until stories about ambitious women have a narrative other than hate and self-hate, ambitious women are going to have to keep paying prices above and beyond the already terrible prices that the singular, monomaniacal focus that certain types of achievement nearly always require.
I liked this movie well enough. It showed and said true things and was well made. But one of those things is that achievement tends to cost women double. For me, that’s hard to watch.
But perhaps hardest for me to watch was the moment Nina locked herself in the bathroom to call her mother to tell her she’d gotten the part, and she’s whispering and sobbing because everything is different now. As someone who is still a performer and wants and wants and wants, I’ve pre-lived my own such moments in my head a million times. It was dead on. And even having gotten to the end of the film and being damn familiar with its truths, I’m writing this still wanting, still knowing, exactly what I’ll sound like the next time I get chosen.
I do a lot of stuff, in part, because “all I’ve ever wanted” is an idea that terrifies me, even if it’s an emotion I at least often think I feel. If it doesn’t already terrify you, Black Swan will probably fix that.