When it opened a few months ago, Black Swan raised all kinds of questions. Should you take it literally? Which parts were fantasy? Should we cheer on Nina or be afraid of her? Was the movie a farce, a melodrama, or both?
Though there are many threads to follow, here I want to focus on just one question: Is Nina’s death at the end of Black Swan — whether real or symbolic — a necessary or logical consequence of her character arc? Swan’s filmmakers have acknowledged a debt to The Red Shoes, the British film of 1948, and I think an analysis of Shoes can actually shed some light on this question. Specifically, I’ll be arguing that Vicky kills herself because she cannot accept her own sexual compulsions, while Nina kills herself because she cannot accept her own destructive nature.
The Red Shoes: It’s actually about kink.
The Red Shoes is the story of Vicky Page, an aspiring dancer plucked out of obscurity by major ballet producer Boris Lermontov. After Vicky joins the company as a rank-and-file dancer, Lermontov’s star ballerina announces her engagement, and Lermontov quickly dismisses her, leaving no doubt as to why:
She’s out, finished. You cannot have it both ways. The dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never.
Eventually, Lermontov chooses Vicky to dance the lead in his new production based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen about red shoes that compel their wearer to dance incessantly. At least in the translation I found, Andersen’s story seems to be a cautionary tale about the terrible consequences of impiety. That’s a message from a different era, though, and when Lermontov presents the story to Julian Craster, the composer, the red shoes become a metaphor for obsession. Julian points out that the shoes kill their owner, a fact which doesn’t seem to put Lermontov off much; his disinterest towards these kinds of pedestrian concerns is a running characterization.
The production of the Julian’s ballet ends up establishing Vicky as a world-class talent. But when she falls in love with Julian, Lermontov forces her to choose between dancing and their relationship. She chooses love, leaving Lermontov to stew, but in the last act, he draws her back to the company to perform the “Red Shoes” ballet again. On opening night, Julian confronts her, then stalks out of her dressing room when she refuses to quit. As she begins to walk to the stage, her crimson footwear dances her out the door and down to a precipice, where she jumps off to land in front of an oncoming train. She is killed.
There are several points where Shoes recalls Black Swan, even besides sharing such a specific environment as the ballet world. There is, for instance, the transformational dance: In The Red Shoes, Vicky is shown in a few other ballets, but it is only the “Red Shoes” ballet that transitions completely to her point of view, becoming a fantasy unmoored from the reality of the movie. As she dances, we enter her rapture, much as we enter Nina’s perspective as she literally turns into the swan of Swan Lake. Even more uncanny is the similarity between Lermontov and Black Swan’s ballet director, Thomas. Both are demanding and indifferent to anything that stands in the way of the dance, and their even hair is similar.
The last common point I’ll mention is the only one I think will be controversial. While everyone would agree that Black Swan is about sexual awakening, I suspect not everyone will agree with me that The Red Shoes has a sexual undercurrent. Therefore, I present my case here.
First, though Vicky and Lermontov don’t explicitly mention sex or romance at their first meeting, their direct tone is vaguely suggestive, and the scene closes when he takes her by the arm and escorts her out of the room — and presumably the party — with a line about how they ought to have a talk, perhaps about her joining his company.
The next cut, however, takes us to a different time and place, so we don’t know what this talk might have been about exactly. The ellipsis seems evasive, suggesting something less than innocent. When Vicky shows up later to join the company, a lead dancer tells her that she will meet many other recipients of Lermontov’s “hospitality,” a phrase he elaborates sarcastically, perhaps because it has some sexual meaning (although, granted, he’s a performer and virtually everything he says is theatrical). It reeks of a classic blow-off where a young woman realizes that she is just one in a series of conquests lured by promises.
Then there also is the flimsiness of the putative tension in the story: Why is Lermontov maniacally driven to keep Vicky dancing? Without a sexual undertone, the conflict between art and love seems a bit contrived. How often do reasonable people argue that in order to be a good artist you can’t get married or even have any romantic attachments?
The best evidence, though, that the Vicky-Lermontov relationship is actually about sex is Lermontov’s preoccupation with the marital status of his dancers. Lermontov has only one rule regarding his precious art: Don’t get romantically involved with anybody. He’s not worried about, say, too much fun, or too little practice. When he fires Julian for dating Vicky, he seems to be the only one who thinks that their work is suffering.
And, to take this logic one step further, let’s ask, If the relationship between Vicky and Lermontov is actually romantic or sexual in some subterranean way, what does that mean about his desire to keep her dancing? I take it as a metaphor for his interest in exercising control over her; his operative mode seems to be domination. If I’m being honest, I think my conviction that their relationship suggests all these not-very-pure psychological motivations comes from my (admittedly highly subjective) feeling that Lermontov’s whole affect, in its imperious, demanding quality, seems really pretty pervy. Near the end of the film, there is, if you’re willing to read into it (and I am), the pitch of intense lust in the way he commands, “Put on the red shoes again, Vicky!”
As a side note, I should say that Julian’s version of romance is only really relatively conventional, not absolutely. In one scene he is furious with her for dancing too slowly, and then, later, she imagines both Julian and Lermontov superimposed over the shoemaker during the ballet. It all suggests that Julian and Lermontov might even just be two of the same: They both want to boss her around. But Julian is, by the logic of the film at least, offering a traditional romance as well. (It also ought to be said that the way any film in 1948 constructs this “traditional romance” is bound to feel a little strange to modern, more feminist sensibilities. During their romantic apogee, a moonlit carriage ride, Julian imagines aloud a conversation he’ll have one day, when, apparently, he expects Vicky will no longer be in the picture. He imagines saying of this glorious evening, “‘Then she was quite young, comparatively unspoiled.’”)
However much like Lermontov he might be, Julian is the one that represents marriage. If we take it for granted that Lermontov wants to dominate Vicky, it’s intriguing to see that she’s actually tempted by what he’s offering. She’s torn between Lermontov’s dark sexuality and the more dreamy, conventional romance offered by Julian. Putatively, she cannot decide between the two, which means she is at least seriously considering Lermontov and all he represents. It seems that Vicky might be just the submissive Lermontov is looking for.
Looking at the ending in this light, what might be taken as ambiguous — she dies supposedly torn between art and love — actually indicates that she has chosen, since the red shoes that dance her to her death, after all, belong to Lermontov’s world of obsession and extremism.
Moreover, as soon as we admit that Lermontov really just wants to fulfill his fetishist fantasies of pleasure denial and control, Vicky’s inner conflict in allowing herself to submit to him seems quite a bit more plausible as the real tension underlying the film. If it weren’t, the suicide would seem gratuitous. Why not just forsake Julian and dedicate herself to dance? That doesn’t seem so terrible.
My theory, then, is that she commits a kind of suicide, if you want to call it that, because she cannot bring herself to admit she would actually prefer Lermontov’s brand of “love.” If Lermontov represents this dark sexual side, as opposed to Julian’s lovey-dovey brand of relationship (only viable, it seems, until she rots up like an old piece of fruit), she may not have been able to accept her desire to fill those (perverted) red shoes, an urge that is at odds with the conception most people have of themselves. So her self-destruction means that she would prefer to destroy herself than to embrace this shadow self.
So, from where I sit, Lermontov’s unyielding need to keep her dancing and her desire to submit to this treatment are just useful cover stories for a twisted romance, a passion Vicky would rather kill herself than admit to. I’ll admit, this is the most tenuous part of my argument, since it’s admittedly hard to make out what this suicide might mean. But it’s clear to me that, in the context of the mores of the time, that the kind of perversity fomenting between Lermontov and Vicky wouldn’t fly as the explicitly acknowledged conflict of the movie. The characters and the filmmakers weren’t yet in the era of Black Velvet or Secretary, where protagonists can turn to the dark side without utter self-contempt. Hell, most of us still aren’t in that era.
Black Swan: It’s actually about being evil.
However you interpret it exactly,The Red Shoes clearly differentiates two incommensurate paths. But in Black Swan, there is no choice: The artistry that Lermontov is supposed to represent — and which is mutually exclusive with romantic love in Shoes — is right there bound up with sexuality, at least as constructed by the ballet director, Thomas. He insists explicitly that the path to mastery is through sex, not away from it. Nina doesn’t face a choice, she faces a brutal transition from prepubescent innocence to sensuality and aggression.
Swan borrows a lot of its tortured sexuality, as well as many devices, from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Swan director Darren Aronofsky and the screenwriters have mentioned the influence, and it’s easy to see in what the films share: threatening events happen on screen but are quickly revealed to be illusions; haunting figures are glimpsed in the mirror; nail cutting results in painful incidents; dead bodies are dragged around; and in each movie, there are bathtub submersions.
Most importantly, in both films, the protagonist’s psychosis is intertwined with her sexuality. Repulsion establishes Carole’s nightmarish relationship with both men and sex as integral to her mental breakdown, just as Nina seems to be faltering in the face of her own carnal desires. In another parallel, Repulsion’s secondary characters seem strangely unattuned to Carole’s gradual unhinging, or even grossly oblivious, much as Thomas, Lily and Nina’s mother seem unaware of Nina’s breaks with reality.
The great difference between the movies is that Nina’s pain is arguably to a purpose, while Repulsion is just a descent into oblivion. The latter is ultimately unsatisfying, partly because it’s hard to identify with a protagonist slowly losing the battle with sheer madness.
Black Swan’s character arc, however, feels worthwhile, as we watch Nina grapple with an identifiable challenge. She wants to succeed as a ballerina, and to do that, she needs to become an adult without losing her sanity. Most of the film develops this dynamic, but a late scene complicates that equation.
During the performance of Swan Lake, Nina returns to her dressing room, where she finds Lily. They fight; Lily turns into another version of Nina, but then, after the Nina who has been dancing stabs the shadow Nina with a shard of glass, the interloper dies. This other version of Nina, however, is now Lily again.
Because this entity has changed back and forth between Lily and some form of Nina, it’s hard to make sense of this scene, and I defy anybody to explain exactly what this killing means. It’s a filmic form of polysemy, with possible readings and meanings crisscrossed and indeterminate.
But Nina’s reaction is not nearly so opaque. She is not so stricken that she runs to find help, nor does she simply break down in her room sobbing. She has been empowered by murder. After quickly hiding the body, she rushes off to dance better than she ever has, literally turning into the black swan, a version of which has been haunting her. She has symbolically become the monster she feared. She is suddenly more sure of herself than ever before, and she’s ready to smooch Thomas without any prompting.
Granted, it turns out that Lily is still alive. But Nina’s heartless, triumphant reaction to Lily’s apparent death makes this killing more sinister than it might have been if she had regretted it. It seems more than the metaphorical death of the Nina’s innocent self, a “death” that needn’t have been nearly as violent. Nina seems to have killed a real person, and she has a merciless air. This is a way of moving from innocence to adulthood that is destructive and cruel rather than progressive and mature.
Through most of the movie, Nina has been at war with her own sexual desires, which, in my reading of The Red Shoes, makes her sister to Vicky. But if Nina is Vicky in this movie, she is also Lermontov. She is, finally, indifferent to the life she has ended, just as Lermontov would destroy Vicky’s marriage and let his ballet company suffer — indignant, even, that anyone would expect him to show emotion over it. Nina finds in this last scene that she is almost as unflinching and uncompromising. Like Vicky, Nina has found herself, and found someone she can’t permit to exist. In the end, they have both eliminated themselves for desires they have discovered but cannot accept.