Body of work: Aronofsky wrestles with an idea

Sometimes a superficial resemblance between two films by the same director is nothing more than coincidence; sometimes similarities are indications of important preoccupations.

Darren Aronofsky has recently been fascinated with bodily matters.  His last two films can be read as mirror images of one another.

Mickey Rourke

Black Swan (2010) might be a horror film.  Or it’s a cautionary tale about what happens when an artist goes so deeply into her role as to fundamentally confuse illusion with reality.

The Wrestler (2008) is also a sort of horror film, yet also reads as a tale of redemption.  An aging wrestler confronts the damage of his lifestyle choices, both to his own body and to his family relationships.

In Black Swan a quest for perfection by the dancer protagonist –Nina–resembles an all out war on the body.  Nina confronts the collateral damage—in her own body and impoverished personal life—as she looks around at others who have taken the same dangerous path before her.

Today I was watching Hannah and her Sisters, Woody Allen’s 1986 film featuring Barbara Hershey before her plastic surgery, which led me to a pair of parallel google searches:

  • “Barbara Hershey plastic surgery”
  • “Mickey Rourke plastic surgery”

Among the pages i found, one headline went as far as saying “Aronofsky Helps Another Plastic Surgery Victim.”  While it’s sensationally absurd, I don’t think it’s a fluke that Aronofsky cast Hershey as the vicarious ex-dancer mom in Black Swan.  The damage on Hershey’s face serves as a manifest subtext in Black Swan: a generational obsession with perfection.

Time could be a character in Black Swan— arguably the arch-villain– lurking in the background of each of the main female characters:

  • Young Nina (Natalie Portman) knows success is fleeting
  • Nina succeeds the aging Beth (Winona Ryder), both as a star and as the lover of Thomas (Vincent Cassel)
  • Meanwhile Lily (Mila Kunis), the recent arrival is breathing down Nina’s neck, ready to replace her (on stage and in bed with Thomas) if she fails
  • Erica (Barbara Hershey) who no longer dances (if she ever really did) now obsesses over her daughter, as the most visible evidence of time’s ravages

Both films celebrate physical disciplines.  Wrestlers and dancers are both practitioners who not only have objectives in what they do with the body –as dancers or wrestlers – but also in what they make of the body.  The practice of their disciplines is as much about the creation of an instrument (the body of a dancer or a wrestler) as it is about the actions done using that instrument (dances or bouts).  And any achievement is a poignant challenge to the patient attack by time.

The body is a site for their work, and in the unfortunate individuals portrayed, a site for their obsessions.  We see both abusive practices for the marginal performer (steroids, bulimia, and worse) or the careful handling of a body in the midst of a successful career (equipment, shoes, muscles, exercise, rest).  One can find both a compassionate attention to detail and horrific glimpses of a heretofore unseen world.

Aronofsky deserves credit for bringing these two films to the screen.  Painful as some aspects are, I believe we fail to come to terms with complex material when we pigeon-hole and oversimplify.  The classification of art into genres, while a useful element of marketing and a tried and true practice in the history of criticism, sometimes leads us to under-estimate the breadth of some transgressive creations.  Black Swan is much more than just a horror film.

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