Is Black Swan a Chick Flick?

Why is it that the movies which most disturb us also obsess us?

My friend writes a truly excellent blog called “Fuzzy English” that breaks down how words evolve, become meaningfully charged, and are used across media.  I’ve been reading a lot of it lately, and I think he’d start off this post by looking at the word “disturb.”

Though I usually balk at the idea of quoting a dictionary as a beginning of a blog (or a misguided graduation speech, or a toast), I'm going to break form here because I want to flesh "disturb" out a little bit. Merriam Webster’s first definition is of “disturb” is “to interrupt.” And, I suppose, that’s what disturbing movies do.  When we are “disturbed” we are interrupted from the inside; our normal thoughts and reactions are broken and replaced – involuntarily – with new ones. Disturbing movies leave images inside us that we can’t get rid of.
When I saw Black Swan, one of this year’s 10 Best Picture nominees and the vehicle that earned Natalie Portman the Golden Globe for Best Actress and an Oscar nom, I was disturbed and haunted and followed by its images for days.  And while usually I enjoy the process of thinking over a film after the fact, while I usually take a film’s resonance as a sign of its success, with Black Swan, I was miserable.  I wanted to get it out of my head, I wanted to forget about it; I told a friend that I wanted to wash my eyeballs.

M-W also lists “unsettled,” unhinged,” “weirded out,” “worried," and “discomforted" as "disturbed" synonyms.  Black Swan was all of these and more: it was horrifying.  While I had expected a dark, psychological memoir, I really hadn’t anticipated a full-on horror movie.  And critics agree, Black Swan is most definitely that – a horror movie.  
Black Swan is certainly a psychological drama, but it evolves (devolves?) into a (pointlessly?) gory movie with did-that-just-really-happen murder scenes and blurred realities.   I talked before about the rare A-list horror genre occupied by films like The Shining and the pilot of "The Walking Dead" (before it turned into "Lost 2"). Black Swan belongs in that category – relentless storytelling, Academy-grade acting, and director Darren Aronofsky’s (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) art house take on over-the-shoulder scary-movie cinematography.  
But here’s the thing: I love horror movies.  I love violence and gore, shoot-em-ups, dismemberments, and breakdowns.  I especially love that stuff when it’s coupled with heavy-handed directors (anything Tarantino), nightmarish sociopaths (No Country for Old Men), or surreal descents into madness (American Psycho).  But somehow, despite all of these elements, I couldn’t relate to Black Swan; I couldn’t get past the unnecessariness of it to appreciate it.

Interestingly, girlfriends of mine who saw the movie loved it, especially those girls who don't particularly like horror movies or gory movies.  So, somehow, Black Swan found a bizarre niche with the rom-com set.  Was it Natalie, darling star of Garden State and The Other Boleyn Girl?  Was it ballet, (which only girls like)?  Was it the pink tutus and bulimia?  What was it about the twisted, abusive, disgusting femininity of this movie that made it appealing to women who don't like horror movies (and uncharacteristically repulsive to at least one girl who loves horror movies – me)?

I am convinced there is some peculiar gender divide underlying this film, though I can’t fully tease out an explanation for it.  If we're willing to agree, for the sake of oversimplication and stereotype, that there are "boy movies" and "girl movies," we would all know how to categorize most modern films.  Of course, there are girl movies that many boys like (Love Actually) and boy movies that girls like (Fight Club, Boondock Saints). But Fight Club is still a "boy" movie and Love Actually is still a "girl" movie, right?  Undoubtedly there are cross-overs, but I know you're with me, even you pretentious liberals who "don't see gender." 

What I'm getting to is: Black Swan is a "girl movie." Girls went in groups to see it without their boyfriends, and boys were dragged on dates.  But why?  It's a movie about abuse – physical and sexual, external and self-inflicted.  It's a movie about pain and violence it features some extremely disturbing mutilations, both realistic and unrealistic, and plenty of blood. It has naked women, masturbation, and a famous-for-the-wrong-reasons lesbian sex scene.  So why, after all this, is Black Swan still ultimately a “girl movie?”

Is it that it's all internalized – the fights are within Natalie’s character, not acted out on others?  Is it the complexities?  Is it the delicacy of the (anti)heroine?  Is it that sometimes women just feel crazy and unbalanced and it’s nice to see someone crazier?  Is it just that the main character is a girl?  I just don't know.  But I can’t stop thinking about it. 
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February 25, 2011 at 11:58 AM delete

I thoroughly enjoyed Black Swan, though it was definitely haunting (I wasn't dragged, and freely elected to go with my date. Though I also knew a few people who worked on the movie and I am a fan of Aronofsky.) It's high-end camp/horror, and actually quite a simple story that I think many people can relate to, but perhaps also a large majority of women: The quest of perfection.

Beauty for instance can be sliced into two general components, internal v. external. We like to believe we ascribe to the "beautiful the way you are" line of thinking. But in reality the push for external beauty by ourselves and pop culture, particularly those who feel they are not naturally blessed with it, is quite maddening and never-ending, particularly the older you get and the less control of it you have.

So in that way it's a horror romance with the self, psychological transformation into the powerful were-swan. Portman's character desire to just be perfect, against all the pretty laughable odds (crazy mom, piggish director, insane jealously), is the part that resonated with me the most because in most cases it is unattainable...and if it is attainable it sure as hell don't last long. It touches something primal in me, that feeling of power and specialness, the glorious success in the limelight after so much time in the shadows.

That said, I actually hope it doesn't win Best Picture. And thought I enjoy Portman, I don't want her to win...and I suspect neither will. I feel the same way about Inception, which I also loved. There's something about the too-cleverness about it all that gnaws at the edges of me. That showmanship trumps art, that whiz-bang hoopla gets the prize over capturing what is behind the veil of the human experience, which for me, feels closer to truth which is my personal quest.

Speaking of strong feelings over unnecessariness...have you seen Enter the Void? My eyeballs will never be clean again.

February 27, 2011 at 5:35 PM delete

It's simplistic and heavy-handed almost to a fault, right? It worked for me because it made me nauseous. And if I get nauseous, it's love.

But I think we do equate crazy with girl. Not funny cheeky crazy, like American Psycho. More like batshit insane. It's the same story as The Yellow Wallpaper, which probably stole it from some 16th century diary or something, which got it from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and so on. Women is crazy. Change the music and you've got The Hours.


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