The Gothic sensibility in Black Swan
Since its beginnings in nineteenth century literature, the Gothic has kept evolving and has become a genre that is difficult to define and delineate. In literature like in film, it is generally known to be attached to genres like the melodrama and horror. Moreover, it has often been defined as a specific set of iconography comprising dark castles, shadows, ghosts or other supernatural creatures. However, more than anything, the Gothic has been argued to be a sensibility, a set of feelings that the audiences have to experience in order to re-evaluate their own beliefs. This essay focuses on how the movie Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, USA 2010) illustrates this emotional aspect of the Gothic. Firstly, the uncertainty cultivated by the film and consequently its relation to Todorov’s definition of the fantastic will be discussed. Secondly, the movie’s persistent blurring of boundaries will be looked at and related to the subsequent self-evaluation it expects from its audience. Finally, the importance of the sublime in disorienting the audience will be highlighted. Ultimately, these sections will demonstrate that a film does not need to be set in a nineteenth century haunted castle for the Gothic sensibility to persist.
Although iconography seems central to the Gothic universe, it can be argued that these aesthetics only work as catalysts for the introspection necessary to the protagonist and spectator. As Charlene Bunnell puts it:
The setting, be it a castle, forest, or ship, is crucial in establishing the mood and atmosphere that set the tone, heighten characters’ sensibilities and engage audience involvement (1996: 82).
For example, while the vampire will make the viewers face their fear of the other, the ghost will remind them of death and the castle will be home to the terrifying unknown. The Gothic therefore relies on creating a sense of hesitation and the expression of deeper fears. In this respect, one of the most disturbing aspects of the Gothic is the uncertainty it creates as to the real nature of the monster. It is often implied that the monster is not an external presence but a reflection of the dark mind of the character, and by extension, of the audience. Here, the Gothic can be associated with Tzvetan Todorov’s definition of the fantastic, a genre that relies on a sustained uncertainty:
The fantastic occupies the duration of this uncertainty. Once we choose one answer or the other, we leave the fantastic for a neighbouring genre, the uncanny or the marvelous. The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event (1975: 25).
If the text is of the uncanny genre, the supernatural events can be explained rationally; if it is marvelous, the events are to be accepted as supernatural (ibid.). Black Swan illustrates the fantastic perfectly as the viewer – along with Nina (Natalie Portman) – is increasingly unsure of what to believe as the movie progresses. Firstly, the supernatural is present early on in the film: from the moment Nina sees her double in the underground. As she strives to achieve perfection in her dancing, her paranoid hallucinations blur more and more with reality. The visuals serve to express the horror that goes on in her mind and her confusion as she tries to deal with the contradictory demands of the people around her: her mother oppresses her emotionally and sexually, while her artistic director, Thomas, asks her to “let go.” Secondly, the film is always presented to the audience from a first person point of view. The viewers are therefore forced to identify with Nina even as they learn that she is an ‘unreliable character’, allowing them only ‘a partial, possibly deluded perspective on events’ (Donald 1989:13). The spectators struggle to make out what is real, leaving them as confused as Nina and questioning where the boundaries between fantasy and reality lie. For some events, the uncertainty is settled early on – such as Nina’s visions in the underground and her hand mutilation. However, as the film goes on they become more confusing. For example, the stabbing of Beth’s face is never settled: did Beth or Nina do it? Was there any stabbing at all? The supernatural events of the film could all be dismissed as markers of Nina’s insanity, and therefore of the uncanny genre. However, this film can be closely compared to Todorov’s interpretation of Aurélia (Nerval 1855), a text that he considers to be of the order of the fantastic:
In Aurélia we know in advance that the behaviour of Nerval’s protagonist is considered madness. What we are concerned to know (and it is on this point that the hesitation turns) is whether or not madness is actually a higher reason (1975: 40).
Rather than being simply uncanny, the madness brings another level of uncertainty and makes the story remain in the sphere of the fantastic. Similarly, as Nina’s repressed dark side emerges, she may not physically become the Black Swan, but she does mentally. The transformation is real on the psychological level and expressed in the supernatural occurrences. Therefore, Nina’s transformation is not pure insanity, but rather the emergence of the ‘higher reason’ Todorov refers to. By forcing the spectator to identify with Nina and to feel as confused and terrified as she does, Black Swan meets the prime characteristic of the Gothic genre described by Bunnell:
An audience cannot merely read the Gothic story; they must experience it. Their own sensibilities must be aroused, their own values re-evaluated, and their own social codes questioned (1996: 81).
Indeed, the film incessantly involves the audience with its strong visceral impact and sustained uncertainty, the deeper roots of which will now be examined.
The effects of the American Gothic text on the spectators are based on the reflection of personal fears:
If the British Gothic is read in social terms, the American Gothic […] takes a turn inward, away from society and towards the psyche and the hidden blackness of the American soul (Goddu 2000: 269).
Therefore, the genre will not portray external monsters but will usually make the viewers doubt the sanity of the protagonist in order to make them face their own repressions. Robin Wood distinguishes two forms of repression: the ‘basic repression’ which is necessary for humans to control their id, and the ‘surplus repression’ which conditions people into taking a culturally-defined place in society (Wood 1984: 108). The oppressive mother, a recurring character of Gothic tales like The Haunting (Robert Wise, USA 1963) or, more recently, The Others (Amenábar, USA 2001) is often the initiator of the protagonist’s excessive repression. In Black Swan, the demanding mother has made Nina hardworking but unable to express her feelings. To achieve the perfection she seeks in her portrayal of the Black Swan, she needs to embrace her emotions and “lose herself.” The first step is for Nina to express her sexuality. As she is overwhelmed by the emergence of repressed feelings, she develops sexual and murderous fantasies that make her increasingly paranoid. In fact, Patricia White who refers to the Gothic genre as the ‘paranoid woman’s film’ (2000: 212), points out that Freud considered paranoia ‘the defense against homosexuality’ (ibid.). Arguably, this is telling of the lesbian fantasies Nina experiences which involve her rival Lily: her paranoia is reflective of a mental struggle between her repressed super-ego and her sexually expressive id. This division of Nina’s psyche is also expressed through numerous doppelgängers, exemplifying the importance of the fractured self in the Gothic sensibility: ‘in English and American Gothic, dualism and multiplicity of selves are recurrent ‘myths’’ (Jackson 1981: 108). For instance, Lily becomes the projection of Nina’s sexual self, Beth reflects her older yet more accomplished self and the transcendent Black Swan is the dark double to the innocent and controlled White Swan that Nina perfectly embodies. Linking the uncanny sense to childhood repressions, Freud explains the disturbing effect of the double:
The ‘double’ was originally an insurance against the destruction of the ego […]. Such ideas, however have sprung from the soil of unbounded self-love, from the primary narcissism which dominates the mind of the child and of primitive man. But when this stage has been surmounted, the ‘double’ reverses its aspect. From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death (1919: 356-7).
This is made quite clear in the film. Indeed, the childish Nina lives surrounded by mirrors whether she is at home or at work, and her mother has a room filled with paintings of her daughter. This is revealing of a certain narcissism that the mother has encouraged and it works only to pressure Nina into wanting to “be perfect.” As Nina grows up – she learns to express herself and her sexuality, throws her stuffed animals away and rejects her mother – the paintings come to life and her reflections in mirrors become surreal. The usual and comforting doubles become uncanny. Not only to Nina, but to the spectators who have long repressed their childhood fantasies of inanimate objects coming to life (Freud 1919: 355). It is a warning against narcissism. Another dualism that is ubiquitous throughout the film is the dominance of black and white. Characters wear almost exclusively white, black or grey. When Nina embraces her ‘dark side’ for the first time in the night club scene, she puts on a black shirt over her white one, experiments with drugs and starts seducing men. This is when her Black Swan alter-ego starts making almost subliminal appearances in the stroboscopic light. Quoting Linda Bayer-Berenbaum, Lisa Hopkins points out that:
The Gothic tends “to portray all states of mind that intensify normal thought or perception. Dream states, drug states, and states of intoxication have always been prevalent in the Gothic novel because repressed thoughts can surface in them.” (2005: xii).
In Black Swan, all these states blur with reality to intensify our uncertainty. They make Nina more receptive to her dark side as she and the audience lose hold of the boundaries between dreams, hallucinations and reality. This release of her inner Black Swan, leads her in a journey through the repressed which teaches her to transcend her body limits, to express herself and to reject an overwhelming mother. Although Nina ultimately achieves perfection in her performance by expressing both extreme sides of her ego, her incapacity to find stability between these personalities leads to her death. Interestingly, this death is also filled with uncertainty considering that by the end of the film, the audience is led to doubt everything that Nina’s point of view has shown them. Looking at the black and white dichotomy of the film, it is interesting to point out that the start of Black Swan is black and opens on a nightmare of Nina’s. It can represent the claustrophobia she feels in her extreme repression. This contrasts with the bright white ending of the film which can express the dream-like liberation of Nina in death, or simply in the death of her repressed self. Through its blurring of boundaries, the film tells the viewers that no one is black or white, we must manage our ‘basic’ and ‘surplus’ repressions in order to find a balance between the super-ego and the id, control and transcendence, rationality and sensibility. This reflection of the Gothic film on the world of the audience is highlighted by Hopkins:
It is the dualities typically created by the Gothic that invest it with its uncanny ability to hold its darkly shadowed mirror up to its own age (2005: xi).
Society asks that the id be repressed and the super-ego encouraged, yet stability between the two is vital. Nina, who is overly repressed, cannot handle the liberation that Thomas demands. Although she achieves perfection in her performance, she dies having failed to balance both sides of her ego. Throughout the film, the audience must find this balance between rationality and sensibility: their emotions can take over during a visceral film, but the reasons why they are so affected by it should be questioned. In this way, Black Swan expresses the coexisting difficulty of the id and super-ego, and the risks inherent to this duality of the mind. It also shows that if people are asked to remain repressed in society, they are encouraged to “let go” in the arts. This can be cathartic if the ego is well balanced, yet dangerous for people like Nina. People like Lily who can ‘accept their dual nature’ (Bunnell 1996: 93) are imperfect, but can survive. She is more balanced, therefore the danger in the return of the repressed is less extreme.
This notion of perfection as being dangerous leads to another disturbing aspect of the film that draws from the concept of the sublime. Edmund Burke believed that beauty is small and causes pleasure while the sublime is overwhelming and causes terror (1757: 121). In Black Swan, Nina strives, not for beauty, but for perfection which is within the domain of the sublime. Thomas, explaining Beth’s impulsive behaviour to Nina, implies that perfection can only be achieved through destruction, incidentally mirroring the inner and outer destruction that ballet slippers have to go through in order to perform well: “Everything Beth does comes from within, from some dark impulse. I guess that’s what makes her so thrilling to watch, so dangerous, even perfect at times, but also so damn destructive.” Once more, the boundaries are blurred, feeding our uncertainty. Beauty becomes relative: swans are considered beautiful, yet the Black Swan is monstrous. Nina is a ballerina who performs beauty, however, the film always brings attention to the unattractive transformations her body has undergone through intensive training. For instance, her back muscles are uncannily developed and resemble trapped wings and the constant strain on her feet gives her the need to stretch and crack her toes in the morning. In his critique of Black Swan, Terrence Rafferty comments on this point:
Physical transformation is, after all, what ballet is about too: the stretching and shaping and molding of a body into a form that makes impossible movements possible, and allows a creature of flesh and blood to transcend the limitations of the merely human and take flight (at least metaphorically) into the region of the sublime (2010: 4).
In this way, the concepts of beauty and monstrosity blur as Nina’s body slowly transcends its original possibilities and becomes that of a swan. The sublime is also felt in the loud use of classical music. In fact, Burke explains that ‘excessive loudness alone is sufficient to overpower the soul, to suspend its action, and to fill it with terror’ (1757: 65). Along with their sense of hearing, the spectators’ senses are disoriented throughout the film. The body horror causes visceral pain as the viewers hope to find out that what they have just witnessed was a hallucination, and their balance is impaired as the camera turns through corridors or closely follows Nina’s swirls. Here, the sublime expressed through dance, cinematography and loud classical music makes us experience our emotions in a visceral experience that is always reflective of the Gothic sensibility.
While the Gothic has been known for its set of iconography, it remains debatable that the genre can still be defined by it. As a modern example of the Gothic text, Black Swan does use some classic iconography (from the stark black and white contrast, to the supernatural apparitions and the confused female protagonist). However, its Gothic roots are mainly found in the film’s effects on the viewers’ reason and senses. In order to make them think about their belief and value systems, Black Swan cultivates uncertainty throughout and disturbs by blurring boundaries between known opposites. Alternatively, it affects their emotions through uncanny imagery and the use of disorienting cinematography and sound, encouraging a sense of the sublime. All of these elements are recurrent in Gothic texts and are part of a Gothic sensibility that can often be far more effective than its iconography.
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Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, USA 2010)
The Haunting (Robert Wise, USA 1963)
The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, USA 2001)