Monday, January 24, 2011
BLACK SWAN (2010)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *irony*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*
Before discussing the film proper (wherein there will be no SPOILER WARNINGS), I'll explain a little about the motif I've assigned to this film, "delirious dreams and fallacious figments," in contrast to a related motif discussed in the HAMLET (1948) essay, that of "phantasmal figurations."
In the HAMLET essay I stated the latter motif included all works in which the nature of a narrative phenomenon seemed rooted in some manner of illusion, no matter whether the source of the phenomenon was a human being or some unverifable outside agency: hence "phantasmal." In direct contrast, the motif of "delirious dreams and fallacious figments" is clearly a delusory phenomenon that in no way poses any threat to the cognitive rational order. This motif includes depictions of the world of dreams, aberrant fantasies, fantastic sequences related by a real person (PRINCESS BRIDE), and short breaks from a narrative's diegetic reality. (The non-diegetic apperance of Marshall McLuhan in Woody Allen's ANNIE HALL would be an example of the latter.) BLACK SWAN clearly delineates the second of these subtypes, the "aberrant fantasy," in that the story depicts the mental breakdown of a ballerina with something of a Jekyll/Hyde personality.
Obviously, in such a story the Campbellian function must be a psychological one, though one might argue that director Darren Aronofsky and his writers (all of whom are male) have added a sociological element insofar as they have refashioned Tchaikovsky's SWAN LAKE into a post-feminist text.
In the original ballet, tragic female protagonist Odilie is twice undone by the actions of men. The ballet begins with Odilie enduring a curse placed upon her by an evil male sorcerer, whose motive for doing so is never stated. The curse causes her to become a female swan by day, allowing her to revert to human form only by night. She can undo the curse if a man pledges eternal love and loyalty to her (thus putting her once more in the power of male agency). In human form Odilie does meet and fall in love with a prince, and deliverance seems possible. But the sorcerer works against her. He magically disguises his daughter to look like Odilie, and the prince professes his love to the wrong woman. This being a fairy-tale, the words once spoken can't be taken back, and Odilie kills herself rather than live on as a half-swan.
In the narrative of BLACK SWAN, there are counterparts for Odilie, the sorcerer's daughter, and a very loose counterpart to the sorcerer-- all of whom are female characters-- but there is no prince. The only significant male character is Thomas Leroy, the director of a new version of SWAN LAKE, who is loosely responsible for the problem set for protagonist Nina. Leroy wants the same ballerina to dance both the virginal, innocent Odilie, a "White Swan," and the seductive sorcerer's daughter, who, in a departure from Tchaikovsky, is costumed as a "Black Swan." But though Leroy places a heavy demand on Nina by demanding that she portray two widely divergent characters, he isn't responsible for her fragile mental state.
In BLACK SWAN, the "sorcerer" responsible for Nina's "curse" is Erica, a stage mother who has essentially projected upon Nina the responsibility of redeeming Erica's own aborted ballet career. As a result of the mother's domination, Nina identifies with the put-upon White Swan but finds it hard to act the persona of the Black Swan. Her mental turmoil is then aggravated by the presence of rival dancer Lily, who in keeping with her Lilith-like name has the seductive and freewheeling characteristics Nina desperately needs. The mental pressure manifests in increasing hallucinations and culminates in Nina's attempt at murder.
This is not to say that men get totally off the hook. A subplot regarding an older dancer, discarded by Leroy because she's grown too old, and whose romantic place Leroy might like Nina to assume, indicts the male of the species on the customary charge of tomcattery. But clearly Nina's psychological breakdown stems from her inability to throw off her mother's domination and to formulate her own distinct identity. Nina's doomed attempt to assimilate Lily's persona, ranging from an imagined sex-scene with her to an imagined murder-attempt, merely underscore that it's too late for this fragile bird to change her feathers.
Many horror-thrillers deal with protagonists who become dangerous to society because of their delirious states, notably Polanski's REPULSION, but Nina is never seen as a danger to anyone but herself, thus putting SWAN closer to the territory of Peter Shaffer's play EQUUS. Both as play and film EQUUS serves as a good example of the "atypical" manifestation of the "delirious" motif, for in EQUUS the distured character's fantasy does not become "affectively metaphenomal." But although the swan-fantasies of Aronofsky's film are more fully pursued on their own terms, BLACK SWAN is at times a little too pat and polished compared to, say, the oeuvre of Roman Polanski, whose TENANT, another uncanny film with this motif, might make for an interesting cross-comparison.
ADDENDA TO MYSELF: On further reconsideration, I've decided that the trope "delirious dreams and fallacious figments" should not apply to hallucinatory states, whether arising from psychosis or some other cause. This trope should apply only to phenomena that seem to interrupt the diegesis itself, which the hallucinations of BLACK SWAN's character don't. Therefore I've revised my labels to include only the trope "perilous psychos."