Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Horror in "Black Swan"

In a recent post, I talked about how Super 8 was a science fiction film with horror elements that could have benefited from being turned into a full-blown horror film. Lest it be thought that I want to see every film turned into a horror film, consider Black Swan (2010). This is a ballet film with horror elements that is just fine as it stands. The horror elements work, but they are appropriately subordinated to the main purpose: the portrayal of what it takes to create art.

Nina (Natalie Portman), the ballerina at the center of Black Swan, is mentally deformed: she seems to have a mix of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, anorexia, bulemia, and who knows what else, as if someone had thrown the DSM-IV at her when she was a child. She has hallucinations and paranoid delusions, she self-cuts, is regularly in tears, and has a serious case of sexual repression. So she fulfills the deformed part of being a deformed destructive being (DDB), the type of being that qualifies as a movie monster.

However, is she destructive? She is clearly self-destructive, with all her cutting and self-driving, culminating in her stabbing herself fatally with mirror glass during a hallucination in which she thinks she is killing her rival (Mila Kunis). But she is only mildly destructive toward others--biting her director during a kiss; slamming the door on her mother's hand. She is potentially more destructive toward others, since she was willing to kill her rival. In another post, on Cronos, I argued that a vampire who is actually self-destructive but merely potentially destructive toward others counts as a DDB, and Nina is both, so, by that standard, she too is a DDB.

But, unlike in Cronos, the focus of Black Swan is not the presentation of the DDB as such. It is the presentation of an artist, a ballerina seeking to perfect her art. All the horrific things that happen are subordinated to that purpose. Plenty of images in Black Swan are lifted straight from horror movies: the appearance of swan feathers in Nina's back wound, like the fly hairs in Jeff Goldblum's back wound in The Fly; the transformation of Nina into a swan, like Goldblum becoming a fly; the peeling of flesh; the stabbing of Winona Ryder's cheeks; blood in the bathtub; malfunctioning mirrors; and so on. All of it is meant to show the struggle Nina suffers through on her way to delivering the performance of a lifetime--in fact, the last performance of her lifetime, as she dies on stage, having achieved the artistic perfection she sought. This is not a horror film, but it is a great ballet film, one that makes excellent use of a horror vocabulary along the way.

George Ochoa
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films

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