Warning! Thar be spoilers below!
Shapeshifting as a metaphor for sexual evolution is a fairly prevalent trope. Werewolves, after all, are the mythological manifestation of a human’s animal nature, the unbridled id focused on the “3 Fs” : feeding, fighting, and sex.
I just returned from seeing the season’s hit, Black Swan. The movie takes its own stab at the shapeshifting/sexual-awakening trope. Yet, instead of a werewolf, we get one really fierce bird. While the symbolism can be a little on-the-nose at times and can trip up the pacing (yes, we get it, the frigid Nina needs passion in the form of tattoos and orgasms. WE GET IT.), Black Swan is a refreshing take on the sexual-awakening story. It’s exciting to see Aronofsky take this all the way to a fantastical level, with actual animal transformations, disturbing body imagery, and explicit sex scenes.
The parallels between the self-mutilation of professional ballet and the physically deforming process of shape-shifting lands well. The audience would flinch when Nina removes her toe shoes even if this was a straight drama. Adding the blood and mutilation imagery only heightened the already queasy tension.
The comparisons to Fight Club are also easy, plentiful, and often satisfying. By the end, it’s clear that Nina’s psyche is fractured into at least two parts. Also, the adherance to physical beauty despite the anarchistic theme and the sympathy to the protagonist’s paranoic downward spiral and his charming alter-ego, bolster the similarities.
Linking Nina’s sexual awakening to violence is another inspired choice. The ballet director character, Thomas Leroy (played to creepy paternalistic perfection by Vincent Cassel) has to literally force himself on Nina before she even begins to release her inner animal. Far from grooming or corrective sexual assault, Leroy plays the line like a muse, coaxing out Nina’s divine performance through a series of increasingly harrowing challenges on her sexuality, her confidence, and her competitive drive.
Her emerging sexuality maintains the concerto pacing, beginning with a violent-tinged kiss, and extending to the often cited lesbian sex scene. This scene is exciting because it is driven by Nina. Unlike the doe-eyed innocent pounced on by her director, Nina throws herself on Lily with drunken passion.
In the end, due to Nina’s nurturing of her sexual self, her alter ego of the impassioned half-creature, half-sexually awakened woman, thrives and violently overtakes the downy innocent.
The movie is very satisfying- even overused symbols like mirrors feel fresh. The costumes, score, makeup and choreography all elegantly work in concert to raise typical thriller tricks to the level of high-art that the ballet story requires.
A nice plus is that Black Swan passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. This is undoubtedly Nina’s story, and it is driven 100% by her passion, paranoia and will to succeed. For another review from a dancer’s perspective, check out Jiz Lee’s great review (NSFW). And bonus points to whomever knows the reference in the title of this post. Super extra bonus points to whomever can link the title of this post to Matthew Bourne’s splendid reinterpretation of Swan Lake.