The Destruction of Divas

Article topic: 
Black Swan

I do not intend to talk a great deal about the film itself – we are not here to be amateur film critics, but to sketch a few points of cultural comparison, in order to put the film in a particular kind of context. My remarks are derived from opera and ballet, two performance genres that share many mythological characteristics. I do so because it seems to me that Black Swan works – insofar as it does work – by weaving together some well-worn narrative themes.

Opera and ballet share a common characteristic in that they are often portrayed as excessive. They transcend the bounds of normality, and can become not merely unusual forms of expression, but abnormal and unnatural as well. Their characters and their performers alike can be portrayed as monstrous – albeit as ‘sacred monsters’. So too can their presiding geniuses (such as Diaghilev).

The leading lady, the prima donna or the prima donna assoluta, is especially susceptible to monstrosity. One needs to think, for instance, only of the mythologised life of someone like Maria Callas. Exceeding the bounds of normal performance and normal behaviour, they are transformed into something ‘other’. At the same time, they are readily portrayed as victims, usually victims of a manipulative and potentially malevolent male figure. Think of Trilby and Svengali, or Christine and the Phantom of the Opera. These fictional narrative depend on the image of the (female) performer achieving perfection as a kind of hypnotically-induced hysteria.

These divas can, therefore, be consumed in the perfection of their art, and are destroyed in the very act of performing. Let us return to film. The film antecedent of Black Swan is Red Shoes (Powell and Pressburger). In many ways this was the better film. By casting Moira Shearer, a dancer, in the lead, the directors were able to make dance itself a more vivid part of the narrative. They had fragments of a ballet, based on the Andersen story of the Red Shows, created for the film. (By contrast Black Swan has some pretty jejune shots of what actually seems to be a very traditional version of Swan Lake). The ballet and the film’s characters’ lives are intertwined. The ballerina is driven (by the red shoes themselves, by the impasse of her emotional life) to throw herself to a death.

This is a sort of Liebestod – a consummation of oblivion. The self-immolation of the dancer or the singer thus parallels the mythical, sacrificial destruction of the heroine in opera and ballet’s tragedies. Interestingly, there is an interesting parallel her in another of the Powell and Pressburger films – their version of Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann (which had performers in common with Red Shoes, including Moira Shearer and Robert Helpman). In a series of episodes, a series of failed loves are recounted. In the first, the hero encounters Olympia, who turns out to be a mechanical doll, created and then destroyed as she dances, by Dr Coppelius. In the second, he finds Antonina, who (the reasons need not detain us) must not sing, but under the influence of Dr Miracle, she sings herself to death.

To return to Black Swan, then, it draws on all of these, and other recurrent themes. It is thus part of a mythology of the performing arts, in which obsession, hysteria and excess drive the (female) performer, in which the (male) manipulator leads towards a destructive impulse, and in which there can be a sort of resolution in art-death.

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