Women well into their nervous breakdowns
We love to watch people go mad in the movies. We watch people go mad because of fame and money. We watch people go mad because of war or tragedy. And we watch people go mad because of the relentless pursuit of perfection. We're especially fascinated by beautiful people going mad. "I hate to do this to a beautiful woman," said one of the cameramen of Catherine Deneuve on the set of Repulsion. As if tormenting a plain looking person would be somewhat less repulsive. We envy and idealize the beautiful. What reason should they have to go mad, when life has dealt them such a winning hand?
But Natalie Portman's Nina and Catherine Deneuve's Carol do spiral down into madness. Both are haunted by visions of walking nightmares. Both see their reflections become broken and distorted. And both are eventually brought to violence. Each film contains moments of such fierce discomfort, we begin to expect (or fear) that the director is capable of showing us anything. Now that is horror. A scene of cuticle cutting in Repulsion suggests that Darren Aronofsky was probably influenced by that film's understanding of our empathy toward hangnail trauma. But it's not fear of physical pain that's the catalyst for these beauties' insanty.
Would you fuck that girl?
They're all the same these bloody virgins, they're all teasers that's all.
No way out
The activeness of Nina versus the passiveness of Carol is one of the major differences between these two films. Yet in both cases it seemingly makes their downfall more inevitable. Carol has no direction in life, no goals, no hobbies even. Her descent into madness seems a natural progression of that emptiness. For Nina, her pursuit of artistic triumph is so great, it can only lead where it eventually does - downward. What both of these women do share is obsession, and that, however manifest, is the key to their fates. The two women justify their darkness differently as well. Black Swan plays with the doppleganger (echoing Swan Lake). Nina, perhaps unable to accept any darkness within herself, creates mirror images of herself, onto whom she can project her inner evil. Carol recedes within herself, becoming further and further the eternal victim. She rationalizes her actions as necessary self-defense. She has to. By the end of her film, even the walls are attacking her.
In the over forty-five years between these two films, we notice that audiences have changed little. Stories of beauty and obsession are still captivating. Both films present us with a heroine who the picture empathizes with and sexualizes, almost becoming another one of the many gazing and lecherous men that surround them. Like Nina, Black Swan the film is more active in its pursuit of our emotional distress. The film is bombastic, swirling around, throwing a large amount of stimuli at is from all sides. Repulsion is more passive like Carol, building slowly to a point where fantastic images truly shock. Both methods work for their respective films, though the more modern one is maybe indicative of a time when the weight of film history and media saturation requires images be louder. But however the times have changed, we still respond to beauty in peril. We still are shocked at beauty embodying evil. And like that camerman we feel terrible about it, but keep it in our gaze.
see new episodes of this series