The Ecstasy of the Black Swan: Eroticism & Transformation
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The Silence of the Lambs. Movie-goers were left wondering what meaning lies behind awarding such an horrific, grotesque, and arguably evil tale about serial killers with cinema’s highest honor, the Oscar. In the volleying commentary between art and culture, what does it mean that cannibalism is featured in the year’s Best Picture?
The Oscar nominees for 2011 were recently made public by the Academy, and among the films listed in the category of Best Picture is Black Swan. Reviews have repeatedly described the film as a “psycho-sexual thriller,” and the New York Times review calls it “one delirious, phantasmagoric freakout.” Any film in the running to win an Oscar serves as an excellent text for critical reflection from the Christian (broadly so) perspective, but especially a film with such overtly “evil” themes as self-mutilation and homoerotic lust, and such timeless dualisms from the Christian tradition as pain/pleasure, mind/body, and light/dark.
Black Swan is the story of ballerina Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), who is cast by the ballet company director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), to play the Swan Queen for the company’s rendition of Swan Lake. As Swan Queen, Nina must portray both the “White Swan”—innocent, delicate, good—and the “Black Swan”—cunning, powerful, evil. Thomas pushes Nina to improve her dancing as the “Black Swan,” blatantly riding her to become seductive and explicitly sexual. Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky masterfully creates a dark film-world in which the audience is brought onto the stage with the dancers and into the chaotic mind of Nina. The film graphically shows the cost of striving for perfection as the audience spirals with Nina, her body and mind, as she breaks with reality.
Perhaps earning the film its reputation as a “psycho-sexual thriller,” there is a racy female-on-female sex scene between Nina and Lily (Mila Kunis), another dancer who is more “Black Swan” than “White Swan.” While no nudity is presented on screen, the substance-induced scene leaves little to the imagination while leaving the audience unsure of its reality. What significance might this scene have for a Christian viewer? In their writing on the Christian tradition and feminist theory, theologians Beverly Wildung Harrison and Carter Heyward write the following:
Sex is often experienced as a dynamic of conquest and surrender rather than as power in mutual relation … In such ‘eroticization of domination,’ sexual desire is linked with either self-oblivion or self-assertion. It would be ahistorical and naive to imagine that anyone’s eroticism in this culture could be untouched by this dynamic.
Considering Black Swan, special emphasis ought to be paid to the relationship between Nina’s sexuality and “self-oblivion or self-assertion.” In clear metaphoric fashion, Nina’s sexual expansion parallels the advancement in her mastering the “Black Swan.” As Nina’s dancing moves from rigid to sensual, so too does her psyche release traumas and emotional baggage. Harrison and Heyward remind us that, “… early Christian anthropology required that pain—the deprivation of sensual pleasure—be accepted as an important element in attaining the joy of salvation.” In Nina the audience sees a body mutilated by dancing—bloody toenails, disordered eating—and yet through this pain she seeks to attain perfection in her performance of the Swan Queen (self-assertion). Concurrently, viewers witness the horrific consequences of trying to control the unacknowledged aspects of one’s personality, as Nina succumbs to her inner demons in a formidable act of masochism (self-oblivion).
Nina’s perverse transformation in some ways mirrors the severe stories of Christian ascetics. Catherine of Siena, for her part, suffered anorexia, received the stigmata, and ate only the pus from the sores of the sick–palpable “deprivation of sensual pleasure.” The tension between the two swans (the two Ninas) unravels Nina as her suppressed sexuality, her attempts to discipline her body at the expense of her mind, and her co-mingling of pain and pleasure dominate the screen, moving audiences to explore similar themes in their own lives–presumably with less dramatic results. Black Swan explores the unseen monsters in every human heart.
Beverly Wildung Harrison and Carter Heyward, “Pain and Pleasure: Avoiding the Confusions of Christian Tradition in Feminist Theory,” from Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection, James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow, editors (Westminster/Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 1994), pages 131-148.