Thursday, December 30, 2010

Distant Relatives: Repulsion and Black Swan

Robert here, with my series Distant Relatives, where we look at two films, (one classic, one modern) related through a common theme and ask what their similarities and differences can tell us about the evolution of cinema.  Since one of these films is still in theaters, I thought I'd mention that while certain plot elements are revealed I've done my best not to spoil any of the film's dramatic resolution.

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.
Sex is dirty.  Sex is bad.  Both of these women have stilted sexuality in a world that demands they be sex objects.  Each film does a superb job of getting us into their heads, making us understand how they see sex.  As Carol lies in bed at night, hearing the animalistic moans and grunts being made by her sister and her sister's beau in the next room, we agree that they don't sound sexy at all.  They don't sound like something Carol would want to partake in.  They don't sound like something we would want to do.  For Nina, a subway encounter with a perverted old man tells us all we need to know about how sex appears before her: dirty, aggressive, a violation.  There's nothing present that suggests the comfort of love or even the enjoyment of pleasure.

For both of these women, being virginal is part of attaining or maintaining perfection.  Carol's pursuit of this ideal is subconscious.  She doesn't hope to achieve anything by accomplishing it, but being spoiled by a man would be akin to falling from grace.  For Nina, avoiding sex is part of her active pursuit of artistic perfection.  Her mother has pushed her in the direction of the pure innocent ballerina.  When company director Thomas Leroy insists that sexuality is her only path to perfection, it both contradicts and reinforces her attitudes toward sexuality and innocence.  After all, he demands she become sexual to embody the black swan, the dark character.  So sex may now be the goal, but it's still something sinister.

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.

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Leo said...

On the subject of distant relatives, I think it's safe to assume Aronofsky or the screenwriters must have taken a look at Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher. Thinking about Black Swan on my way out of the theater, I kept thinking of Erika Kohut and her psychologically incestuous relationship with her mother. The mother in that film kept pushing her adult daughter whom she treated as a child toward perfection and absolute restraint of any sensual pleasures, be it sex or the trivial pursuit of shopping (at one point she tears her fresh garments).

Many of those scenes in which the camera follows Nina in her daily routine reminded me of the way Haneke stalked Huppert. And the apartment also figures hugely in both films. At one point Huppert barricades herself in her room with her pupil to present her sexual manifesto, much to her mother's chagrin. This scenario is repeated in Black Swan when Nina (presumably) enjoys some quality time with Lily.

Finally both women destroy themselves in the final frame in the name of art.

MrJeffery said...

This is such a fab. write-up of these two films. Thanks for sharing.


Leo -- great observations. I hadn't made the connection but it's spot on. And they're even both elitist music milieus.


and also

"As if tormenting a plain looking person would be somewhat less repulsive."


But it is true that beauties descending into madness is a popular motif.

aclp said...

I thought Black Swan was a bit ridiculous. Natalie Portman was very good but I dont think her performance was the reinvention of Medea as people are making it out to be.There's not that much depth and layers in the performace. The character was one note, one dimensional, flat and not layered, and the final transformation looked forced and ridiculous to me. Too over the top, too hysterical, too loud, lots of smoke and mirrors but little substance.

There were moments in the last 40 minutes when I was just laughing at the whole thing. Not laughing with it, or laughing a nervous laughter. I was laughing because it was silly, ridiculous and overdone.

Anonymous said...

This! I've been telling everyone I know to watch Repulsion ever since the buzz around Black Swan began. It's one of my favorite films and Darren's borrowed from Polanski more than most people know (i.e. the over-the-shoulder shot is nothing new, folks!). ;-)

Ani Di said...

Great piece Nathaniel. I love that you blog it's not just about oscar hype and static, and i like so much both movies and this was a nice reading.
Thanks for sharing.(2)

OtherRobert said...

Great article. I wouldn't call them distant relatives as they are the same kind of narrative with similar beats and pacing, but that's a small quibble. I get that Repulsion isn't the most widely viewed picture. I think it's worth noting that there's another female-driven psychological thriller with obsessive self-harm overtones: In My Skin.

Rick Tran said...

"We begin to expect (or fear) that the director is capable of showing us anything. Now that is horror."

That is just a great line.

I had heard that there are more than a few cheap "gotcha!" moments (which is the worst kind of suspense) in Black Swan, but upon reading the above description (which is the best kind of suspense) I'm much more encouraged to go see this film.

I would love to hear comments about these two films from a woman's perspective. Both films are helmed by male directors and I begin to wonder if beauty's descent toward madness is part male fanatasy, like some way in which to tear down that which holds sway over us.

Nonetheless, this was an outstanding write up and a pleasure to read. I'll be tuning in to future articles in this Distant Relatives series. Thank you.


Ani Di -- this was written by Robert, who used to write "Modern Maestros" this is his new series. But i'm sure he'll read your compliment.

I do strive to be more than just endless Oscar coverage. Though there's a *ahem* fair bit of that.

Rick -- for a female piece on Repulsion, you should check out Kim MOrgan --here's an article she wrote and a follow up to the controversy that raised. People seem to be under the impression that flawed people can't make great art because people sure get upset when other people praise Polanski's cinematic mastery.

Amanda -- i was laughing some in the final 30 minutes too but I don't think the film doesn't expect you not to if that makes sense. It is ridiculous... which is why it's flirting with camp.

Ryan said...

WOW... reading that was quite a treat. and now i think i'm going to have to see BLACK SWAN a third time

Robert said...

Leo - I also hadn't connected the two movies before, but you're absolutely right. Great insight.

Amanda - We've chatted about this before in the comments and I think you're point is valid. Earlier today in conversation I compared Black Swan to a piece of devil's food cake. You can accurately criticize it for not having complex flavor. But that doesn't make it an unpleasant sensation.

Ani Di - Nathaniel's right, I do appreciate the compliment. Glad you enjoyed!

Rick - I wouldn't consider the cringeworthy moments in Black Swan to be "gotcha." If anything they're Cronenbergesque: getting worse and worse until you don't know what could be next... but you know it'll be even worse.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely thought about The Piano Teacher while watching Black Swan, Leo! I remember thinking during a Portman/Hershey scene: "This is a poor man's Piano Teacher." Because The Piano Teacher is a shockingly insightful movie about feminine psychosis and Black Swan is a mediocre body horror schlock trying to pass itself off as deep.

Rick Tran said...

Nathaniel -- Thanks. That was a heavyweight article by Kim Morgan. There are so many talented writers/commentators/critics out there who open my eyes towards seeing films in ways I never did before.

Film is such a collaborative medium that in many ways I think quality critics and commentators contribute as much to the lasting legacy of a film as any who appear in the final credits.

Now, I won't go so far as to say that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should create a new Oscar category for "Critic of the Year", LOL, as it is vital to the integrity of both sides to maintain a clear line of distinction, but seriously, some of these critics are so good as to approach art.

But alas, I'm going way off the topic of this article.

Robert -- Thanks for the clarification. Again, great article. I haven't seen either film, yet, but I was still able to get a great feel for both films without having any of the narrative betrayed.

aclp said...

That's it Arden. Black Swan is not as deep as it tries and claims to be, and not as deep as people claim it to be.

The movie sells itself as having some sort of depth and relevance that's just not there. Its quite shallow and simplistic, actually.

(There are Oscar sites in which you can't criticize Black Swan. If you do, you are considered a lifeless brainless worthless human being)

James said...

This is great, but as it's been said above, the relation is hardly distant. Another film even more closely related to Black Swan is David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. The paralells range broad and thematic to alarmingly specific, from certain to camera techinques as well. If this movies cleans up at the Oscar's Aronofsky will have gotten away with murder. It's fairly clear from his body of work that he's a film buff and admires the work of the great auteurs that he appropriates their ideas to try and replicate the effect, in vain, of course.

Michael said...

As I sat watching the Black Swan yesterday I was constantly reminded of Repulsion. I have to say that BS was more the fingernails on the blackboard kind of horror where Repulsion was truly psychologically unsettling. It's stayed with me all these years whereas I don't think BS will last more than a week or so.