Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman, will undoubtedly get reviewers and cinephiles musing about the dual nature of man, about the deliciously creepy place within all of us where kink and madness reside.
As a repressed ballerina desperate to win the lead role in Swan Lake, Ms. Portman’s virginal Nina must abandon her innate wholesomeness to discover the sexy beast within. Indeed, Nina’s journey, spurred by her libertine director’s challenge to “let go,” leads to dangerous pill popping, rebellion against an overbearing parent, taboo sex and more than a hint of lunacy.
As always, director Darren Aronofsky brings the antsy and torturous experience of psychological obsession so superbly to life, you might leave the theater feeling an overwhelming need to call your shrink. Still, I found myself thinking less about the forces of good and evil, and more about Nina’s endless quest for perfection.
To be average in our culture is, in many ways, to fail. Success no longer depends on focus and a healthy competitive streak; it more often depends on ruthlessness, relentless drive and the resolve to be number one. Wealth is no longer about financial comfort, but taking up as much space as is possible with humongous cars and TV screens. Beauty is no longer a lucky accident of nature; it’s achieved through plucking, Botoxing, waxing and working out until you fall into an exhausted heap of rock-hard muscles and six-pack abs. To the detriment of our relationships and our physical and mental health, we strive, strive, strive and work our poor asses to the bone.
Our pop culture occasionally tries to warn us how this unappeasable lust for success kills everything human within us, like when There Will Be Blood’s greedy oil baron ended up crazy and alone. What’s interesting is how these stories of self-destruction change when the central character is female. Seems overly ambitious men destroy everything around them. Overly ambitious women destroy themselves.
Ballet attempts to achieve the most extreme forms of beauty, precision and a grace that is as breathtaking as it is completely superhuman. A person is just not supposed to be weightless and able to contort the way ballerinas contort. A beautiful ballet body is often starved, worked to exhaustion, gnarled with blistered flesh and bloody toes. Mastery in ballet requires complete devotion. Practice is endless, competition is fierce and success rare.
And so ballet is the perfect allegory for a deliriously driven culture. After watching Black Swan, I found myself wondering why we push ourselves so hard, especially considering the potentially disastrous consequences of doing so. Nina’s greatest triumph – dancing Swan Lake – also leads to her annihilation.
Maybe I’m just getting all thinky because I’ve hit that moment in life when you start wondering if “it” was all worth it; “it” being all the sacrifices made and risks taken in the pursuit of greatness. I’m thinking about what you lose operating with such singular focus, how much of yourself gets damaged during the quest. Reach the dream and you may regret the people and experiences you gave up on your journey. Fail to reach the dream and you may regret the people and experiences that won’t be around to soften the blow.
I don’t want to keep bloodying my toes and certainly don’t want to destroy myself. So I won’t stop following my chosen path but I will slow my pace from a manic run to a leisurely walk. The work’s more fun, the view’s better. And I think I’ll have the energy to enjoy it more once I get there.
[Photo from the film Black Swan, Fox Searchlight Pictures]