Spoiler alerts for the 1948 movie, The Red Shoes and Black Swan below!
A graduate school poetry professor, DC Berry, once told me that narratives are either comedies wrapped in tragedies or tragedies wrapped in comedies. The movies I’m going to discuss are probably neither, but for some reason, the older I get, the more I recognize horror in places I never thought to look, or at least, I am more affected by it. For instance, I recently watched Hereditary, a horror film that involves dark witchcraft, possession, and a terrible family tragedy. It was the latter that struck me, though. Yeah, yeah, yeah, blood sacrifices…beheadings…but I spent the majority of the movie wiping tears off my face because I couldn’t stand how cruelly and dysfunctionally the family treated each other at the dinner table. I felt similarly about the horrors of family when I watched The Witch. At the end of the film, I wasn’t scared; I was just really bummed out.
When I was a little girl, I watched the 1948 movie, The Red Shoes and was transfixed. Victoria Page, a young ballerina, must choose between dancing in the company that will most nurture her art or her egotistical husband, whom she loves for some reason. I recently watched it again because I wanted to know if I had remembered it correctly. I only recall a few movies that I watched when I was little, and this one stuck with me. In fact, it informed many of the decisions I made as an adult, regarding career and relationships. What I recall thinking, as a kid, and as I re-watched it last week, is that a woman should never give up her career or her art or anything that serves as the anchor of her happiness. If she would like to marry, she should maintain this anchor at all costs, and not trade it for (as, Boris, the dance company’s impresario puts it) “the doubtful comforts of human love.” Don’t get me wrong, there can be room for both; a balanced life is often healthier (for any sex). However, Boris will not allow his dancers to fall in love with anything but art. Victoria Page sees it differently, and when told that Boris has fired Julian because of their romantic involvement, she replies, quite reasonably: “I shall dance somewhere else.” However, Boris’s company is where she grows most as an artist, and thus, the true conflict begins.
To be clear, the only reason for the conflict she feels is that her men are tearing her apart. Her husband’s ego cannot withstand her need to dance in the company that has fired him, and Boris’ ego cannot withstand the thought that her attention should sway to anything but his artistic direction. At the end of the movie, right before she dramatically flings herself off a building and onto the train tracks below, I recall thinking (both as a child and now, as an adult) that she should have just divorced her lousy husband, who is so controlling that he abandons his opening night (and a pivotal moment in his career) just to dominate his wife and remove the one thing in this world, besides him, that she loves. That scene was exactly how I remembered it, and my feelings about it haven’t changed.
I have read some contemporary reviews of The Red Shoes that claim it is a movie about artistic obsession. However, if the protagonist were male, I wonder if this so-called “obsession” would be viewed in the same way. Usually, when men are single-minded, regarding profession, we just call them “successful.” To me, the horror of this narrative is how commonplace and easy it is for a woman to marry someone who seduces her out of her light. Yes, the same can happen to men, but for women, there’s the added trap of cultural pressure not to outshine men, lest she be considered egotistical. “Selfishness” is one of the worst cultural sins a woman can commit, even if it is just for the short duration of a ballerina’s career. In the movie, Boris is, of course, also an asshole, but at least he uses his assholery for the promotion of her art, which she describes as wanting as much as she desires to live.
Black Swan, a more contemporary, but still tragic, ballet story, dons more overt elements of horror: bloody stabbings, doppelgängers, and surrealistic bird transformations. And yet, the underlying darkness again appears as a woman pulled apart by the demands made of her femininity. In this film, the virgin/whore motif manifests through the opposing forces of her controlling mother, who insists on infantilizing her grown daughter; and her creepy boss, Thomas, who sexualizes her during late night rehearsals in an attempt to awaken the darkness she needs for the Black Swan role.
I’ll admit, one of the most horrifying elements of the film is what ballet dancers do to their bodies. O their feet! O their spines! O the horror! (I’ll spare you a photo.)
I digress. I love this film. Natalie Portman is fantastic playing the role of a scared, little girl in a grown woman’s body, as well as the confident adult in touch with the primal need for lust and conquest. I’m also a big fan of surrealism and coming of age stories. This movie especially intrigues me because I am unsure what to make of the ending.
First, there’s the fact that Nina’s death, at the end of the ballet, makes no scientific sense. Many people have pointed out that a stab wound doesn’t just start to bleed, randomly, at the end of a dance performance. True, but then why does her friend gasp when she sees Nina’s bloody midsection? There appears to be something literal in her death. My impression was that she did (or was about to) physically die at the end of the ballet. I’ve often wondered if simply having Nina wait to pull out the glass shard until the end of the performance, would have resolved this practical issue. I’m no scientist, though. Perhaps, she could not have performed those dance moves with glass in her abdomen.
Natalie Portman has apparently stated that she doesn’t believe that Nina dies at the end of the film but that she symbolically kills her inner child in order to mature as a woman. I like that idea, but I’m still confused by what appears to be literal blood, that other people can see, spreading down her tutu.
No matter. I liked the movie so much that I’m willing to suspend my disbelief in this form of human anatomy! What interests me most, assuming she’s about to die of a stab wound, is whether or not she truly finds her power at the end of the movie. My first thought, when I saw it in the theater, was yes; she attained her deepest desire: perfection that marries technique with the experience of losing herself in the moment. However, the price of this perfection is mental illness and death. As Thomas holds her hand and calls Nina his “little princess,” a name he had previously reserved for the last prima ballerina (who did not take his rejection or her retirement well) I couldn’t help but notice how puny he looked in the face of Nina’s artistic triumph.
Again, though, I can’t help but to imagine this story with gender roles reversed: what if Nina were a man and Thomas, a woman? I just have the sneaking suspicion that, not only would Thomas (in this case, the star of the ballet) get to live, but he’d also be endowed with some sort of sexual power over Nina, despite her new role as his superior, in this imagined scenario.
Gender roles aside, I do not think America has mastered the art of balance. There seems to be quite a bit of the “do or die” mentality: overworking and indulging in ways that mask a deep fear of unworthiness. If we’re not perfect (read: popular, beautiful, talented—“the best”) then maybe we’re nothing. In that sense, I think that the end of Black Swan is a happy one. She has achieved her greatest performance and will never have to cope with inevitable decline, if not tomorrow, then in a few years time.
This month, I offer you Nikki Giovanni’s “Balances,” a poem about the push and pull of life’s contrast.
one is always
like we juggle our mothers
against our fathers
or one teacher
(only to balance our grade average)
3 grains of salt
to one ounce truth
our sweet black essence
or the funky honkies down the street
and lately i’ve begun wondering
if you’re trying to tell me something
we used to talk all night
and do things alone together
and i’ve begun
(as a reaction to a feeling)
the pleasure of loneliness
against the pain
of loving you