[Horror Queers] Lesbian Hallucinations, #MeToo And Sexual Repression in 'Black Swan' - Bloody Disgusting
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[Horror Queers] Lesbian Hallucinations, #MeToo And Sexual Repression in ‘Black Swan’

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Each month in Horror Queers, Joe and Trace tackle a horror film with LGBTQ+ themes, a high camp quotient or both. For lifelong queer horror fans like us, there’s as much value in serious discussions about representation as there is in reading a ridiculously silly/fun horror film with a YAS KWEEN mentality. Just know that at no point will we be getting Babashook.

In case you missed our announcement back in January, be sure to check out and subscribe to the Horror Queers podcast! We’re still writing one article a month, but we’re releasing one podcast episode each week! Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, TuneIn, or RSS.

***SPOILERS for Black Swan follow***

Synopsis: Nina (Natalie Portman), a committed dancer, wins the lead role in a production of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” only to find herself struggling to maintain her sanity.

Queer Aspect: Nina begins having sexy/paranoid dreams and delusions about her (perceived) competitor, Lily (Mila Kunis).

Joe

We’re back in written form for another month and I’m honestly really excited to talk about Darren Aronofsky’s compelling psychosexual ballet film, Black Swan (aka the craziest ballet movie not called Suspiria).

I remember seeing this film in the theatre back in 2010 and it was a really surreal experience. The audience was really diverse, so there was a nice mix of different types of folks, but the silence throughout the entire film was deafening. And then – I’ll never forget this – the literal second the credits began rolling, these two septuagenarians sitting behind my boyfriend and I loudly and immediately exclaimed: “Well I didn’t get it, and I didn’t like it!” Lol.

In retrospect, that commentary – ludicrous as it is without even a second of reflection or contemplation – could be the description for a lot of Aronofsky’s films, which can sometimes feel distinctly confrontational or off-putting (see also: mother!). And yet, rewatching Black Swan for this piece, I was kind of struck at how straight-forward the film is and how well it shows its hand. Aronofsky isn’t trying to disguise the fact that Nina is slowly losing her mind and imagining things, up to and including a lesbian make-out scene with her rival, Lily. It’s all front and center, tellingly telegraphed and then clarified after each incident.

For me, what makes Black Swan such a compelling film is Aronofsky’s use of the camera to really get into Nina’s headspace. The handheld, rotating camerawork is disorienting and occasionally even abrasive, but it’s so tied to Nina as she makes her way through the world of the theatre, the NY subway, and her claustrophobic shared living environment with her manic-depressive mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) that it feels like we, the audience, are slowly going crazy with her.

Of course, the film would be nothing without its symbolic doubling – up to and including the extensive use of mirrors and the likeness between the two lead actresses. The symbolism isn’t subtle: Lily is quite obviously Nina’s own personal black swan, a corrupting influence who compels her to drink, do drugs, fornicate and (accidentally?) stab herself in the gut, but it IS effective. I love how freaky the mirror reflections are in the last act as Nina plummets towards exhaustion, paranoia and insanity – it’s just the right mix of horror movie tropes and FX movie magic.

Trace, what’s your history with Black Swan? Does the film’s paranoia get under your skin like a dirty little rash? And how much do you love a dirty talking Winona Ryder as ousted diva Beth?

Winona Ryder in Black Swan

Trace

It’s so funny that you mention your theater experience with Black Swan, because I couldn’t stop thinking about mine the entire time I was re-watching it.  Up until this week, my only viewing experience was in theaters 9(!) years ago and while I liked the film back then, I remember feeling deceived by the marketing, which made the film look more like a body horror film than it actually was. When it turned out to be an “it was all in her head” film, I was disappointed. I still liked the film, but the fact that it wasn’t what I expected lowered my opinion just a bit.

This turned out to be perfect timing for re-watching Black Swan, since we recently discussed how expectations can shape initial viewings of films in our podcast episode on Happy Death Day 2U. In 2010 I let my expectations affect my viewing of this particular film. In 2019, I’d like to think that I’m a little better at judging a film for what it is, rather than what I expected/wanted it to be.

And you are absolutely right: it’s so obvious that this is all in Nina’s head from the get-go. This isn’t a third act twist we’re talking about. Black Swan even mirrors the actual plot of Tchaikovsky’s ballet so closely, albeit with several, understandable adjustments, that characters are even credited as their ballet counterparts (i.e., Mila Kunis is credited as Lily/The Black Swan). This makes the narrative that much clearer. By the time the film ended, I was so upset at my 2010 self for letting my disappointment over Black Swan’s cerebral narrative affect my opinion of it.

I can imagine how this would be frustrating for casual viewers to watch, though. Aronofsky’s films are anything but simple. The film is primarily told from Nina’s perspective, which automatically calls into question all of the events in the film. She is an unreliable narrator, after all. I suppose it could be argued that the entire film is a fever dream of Nina’s (though I wouldn’t go quite that far myself). My big questions regarding what is real and what isn’t were: When did the reality of Nina’s outing with Lily end (I believe it was when she left the bar)? And also, did Beth actually stab herself in the face with that nail file? Or did Nina imagine it? Did she even go see Beth at all?

Of course, questions about what is real and what isn’t aren’t meant to be asked when viewing Black Swan. You’re just supposed to go along for the ride. Black Swan is meant to be experienced, not picked apart. I fully realize the irony in writing this as we are picking it apart right now, but I digress. Viewed as a visual representation of a fever dream, it’s a near-perfect film (my only real knock against it is that Winona Ryder is criminally underused).

The lesbian sex scene between Nina and Lily is a bit confounding. On the one hand, it would be easy to view the scene as exploitative, but on the other it provides a fascinating look into Nina’s psyche that is a bit underdeveloped.

Nina’s transformation into the Black Swan serves as a metaphor for her burgeoning sexuality (and also her ability to relax, but let’s focus on the sexual aspect). Thomas (Vincent Cassel) asks Nina at one point if she is a virgin and she says she isn’t, but it’s not an entirely convincing answer. He then asks her to go home and touch herself, but of course, she isn’t able to come because she realizes her mother is sleeping in the corner mid-masturbation.

It isn’t until she’s alone with Lily (er…her hallucination of Lily) that she’s able to let go and give into her impulses. Sure, she’s got a bunch of MDMA in her system, but she’s also clearly into everything that Lily is selling. Does this mean that Nina is repressing some lesbianism or bisexuality? This sequence implies that, but the film never digs deeper into that aspect of Nina’s psyche, so we’re left with that question unanswered. Unfortunately, if you look at the film as Nina descending into madness because of her repressed queerness, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Obviously, you’d have to take into account the way she was raised by Erica, the absolute worst type of Dance Mom.

Joe, are you buying into my theory on Nina’s queerness? Or am I, as so many commenters like to say, “reaching”? What did you think of Thomas? Did you find him as creepy and inappropriate as I did? And I didn’t even get to discuss the ballet sequences. Weren’t they stunning?

Joe

One of the elements that I love about the film (which I’ve also come to appreciate more on the rewatch) is how fluid the “illusions” (for lack of a better term) are interwoven into Nina’s actual experience. Aronofsky shoots the entirety of Nina and Lily’s debaucherous drunken and MDMA bar experience – and subsequent make-out – as though it’s just all unfolding in a time-lapsed stupor. I agree with you that it seems as though Nina left the bar solo and Lily’s exploratory fingering in the cab is the start of her hallucination.

Whether Lily is actually symptomatic of Nina’s queer repression is tricky because, as you’ve suggested, there’s a lack of clarity. The entire eating out sequence is obviously imagined and can be read in two ways: in one, Nina’s desire for Lily is explicitly embodied by her imagination, but in the other Lily is simply a symbolic representation of her need for (sexual) release. Judging from the other aspects of the film, I’m inclined to lean towards the second reading EXCEPT that when Lily gently mocks Nina about having a “lezzo” dream about her, Nina clearly becomes upset. It could simply be her embarrassment about acknowledging sexuality of any kind in public (she’s clearly also uncomfortable with Thomas’ advances, rightfully so), but it could reflect desires that she hasn’t acknowledged for a member of the same sex. It’s ambivalent…but open to interpretation!

Whether or not this is lesbian desire, all of these interactions are obviously tied to Nina’s sexual immaturity, which is what Black Swan all boils down to. Every figure in Nina’s life (the dance teacher, the predecessor, and the rival) has a role to play in helping her to “blossom” into the title character; these external factors are required because Nina starts the film in such a (sexually) infantilized condition. One look at the pink butterflies in her bedroom, in addition to the control issues that are imposed on her time, space and body by her mother Erica, reinforce that Nina is trapped in a child-like status, which is not that different from what we know of real life dancer’s bodies and training regimen (another reason why Black Swan works so well for an examination of this particular material).

Sidebar: one darker reading suggests the possibility that Erica has sexually abused her daughter, hence the self-inflicted scratches, the icky masturbation scene and the uncomfortable scene when Nina licks icing off her mother’s fingers when she scores the coveted lead role – fingers she later smashes in her room’s door frame, the physical barrier marking the boundary of her personal freedom. I’ll confess that before reading that I had never considered Erica an abuser beyond the more obvious controlling emotional stuff (see: threatening to throw out the cake when Nina doesn’t play along), but upon closer inspection there is enough evidence to warrant a reading of sexual abuse here.

It’s interesting that you enquired about Thomas because he definitely took up a lot of my mental bandwidth this time around. I find Vincent Cassel to be a fascinating performer, particularly in English language films, where he’s often asked to play these kinds of slightly off-kilter sexual creeps. This performance is pitch-perfect to me because he tows the line so carefully between predatory older man abusing his authority to solicit sexual favours and overly hands-on boss massaging a creative break-through from his ingenue performer.

Obviously, this is a difficult character to see in any kind of positive light in a post-Weinstein, #MeToo era, but I’ll confess that I left the film genuinely uncertain about Thomas’ perception of his actions. Is he just a perv or does he genuinely think that he’s helping Nina to unlock her potential and become the best Black Swan she can be? Nina’s hallucination of him sleeping with Lily clearly aligns the pair in “deviant, dangerous” sexuality territory, and yet…I imagine him rationalizing his advances on Nina as part of some creative process (which still smacks of crossing the line).

Which brings me to your final point: the ballet numbers. I know next to nothing about dance, so I can’t say much aside from the fact that I appreciated the artistry of the movement and Aronofsky’s capacity to shoot it in a way that captures its kinesthetic vitality and urgency, particularly when Nina fully transforms and lunges at the camera. I’m tempted to revisit the way Guadagnino shoots the Volk sequence in Suspiria just to see how the movements compare.

Two other like-minded “out of the box” texts also came to mind that I wonder if you have any comments on. One is Centre Stage, which cast real dancers in the roles of actors to produce some really exciting routines and some really stilted dramatic scenes. The other is…Showgirls, one of my ALL-TIME favourite films, which similarly uses a rags-to-riches, All About Eve approach to tell a narrative about an aspiring dancer who is willing to do nearly anything to steal the limelight.

Trace, any thoughts on Erica as an abusive mother or Thomas overstepping his authority? Where does this film fall in the pantheon of twisted psychological dance movies for you? And can you imagine substituting out Portman’s Nina for Elizabeth Berkeley as Nomi Malone, defending her lack of blowjobs to Beth (now played to perfection by Gina Gershon)?

Trace

You pose a lot of questions, Joe, so I’ll just run down the list:

I confess that I didn’t read any sexual abuse from the Erica/Nina relationship, but I wouldn’t reject that reading. It’s entirely possible that sexual abuse is a part of their backstory, but I just didn’t pick up on it.

This isn’t to say that Erica isn’t a despicable character. She absolutely is, but there is a moment in the film when I didn’t view Erica as a complete and total villain: when she tried to keep Nina home on the opening night of Swan Lake. You can view this as genuine care for Nina’s well-being or as a way to prevent Nina from becoming the successful ballerina that she never could be (Erica clearly resents Nina for ending her career early). I choose to view it as the former, if only because of the look of tearful joy that Erica gives Nina as she watches her dance in the final scene. You can see that she is truly happy for her daughter.

As a whole, though, the relationship between Nina and Erica is pitiful. You are right in that Nina is stuck in an emotionally stunted childlike state. She never fully appears to be emotionally capable of anything beyond the maturity of a 12-year-old. I can’t tell you how many times I nearly yelled at my screen “SPEAK UP! STAND UP FOR YOURSELF!” Nina is an incredibly frustrating character, so when she finally does defy her mother and go out with Lily, it’s one of the film’s only moments of triumph for this meek character (as is her retort to Beth when she asks if she sucked Thomas’ cock. Her reply? “Not all of us have to.”)

As for Thomas…I’m leaning into the “he’s a sexual predator” mindset if only because Beth’s words seem to imply that this isn’t the first time he’s used sex to get a performance out of his dancers. I don’t think there is any time where he doesn’t come off as a total creep. I’d like to consider myself a fairly open person when it comes to discussing sexuality, but when he asks Nina to go home and touch herself, I think I made an audible “blech” sound. There is never any circumstance where it is okay for a person in a teaching capacity to say something like that to one of their students.

Finally, how I never thought to see the parallels between Showgirls and Black Swan is beyond me. It makes so much sense! Imagine if Aronofsky had cast Gershon as Beth! Holy moly. I love Ryder, but that would have been simply fantastic (and lest you think Gershon doesn’t have the dramatic chops to pull it off: watch Bound). We need a triple feature of Showgirls, Black Swan and the Suspiria remake as soon as possible. As for Center Stage, my sister adored that movie growing up so I’ve seen it more than a few times. I never cared for it much, so the only thing I remember from it is the sequence where the dancers are tearing apart their ballet slippers (there is a similar scene in Black Swan). That isn’t a vital piece of information to this discussion, but I thought you should know because reasons.

Disturbing Horror Moments

We’ve gone on for a while, so I’ll close with this: it’s a bit surprising that after all of this, we haven’t even touched on the body horror elements in the film. There are times where it really feels like David Cronenberg could have directed Black Swan. From the plethora of nail trauma (both of the finger and toe variety) to the webbed feet to the scratches on her back, Black Swan is littered with cringy moments of grotesque body horror. And even if the CGI hasn’t aged particularly well, Portman’s transformation into the Black Swan is mesmerizing.

I’m so glad we chose this for our next monthly article, if only because it made me appreciate a film I already liked even more (it definitely moved from “like” to “love” territory on a second viewing). Cross out Black Swan!

Next time on Horror Queers: We’re headed into Cabal territory with Clive Barker’s Nightbreed!

Black Swan is available to stream for $3.99 on Amazon.

And don’t forget to catch up on our previous Horror Queers articles here or check out our podcast page here.

Joe is a TV addict with a background in Film Studies. He co-created TV/Film Fest blog QueerHorrorMovies and writes for Bloody Disgusting, Anatomy of a Scream, That Shelf, The Spool and Grim Magazine. He enjoys graphic novels, dark beer and plays multiple sports (adequately, never exceptionally). While he loves all horror, if given a choice, Joe always opts for slashers and creature features.


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