*This article contains SPOILERS
Black Swan has emerged as one of the more successful films this year, receiving a BAFTA and an Academy Award for Natalie Portman’s portrayal of a rather disturbed ballerina. The public debate surrounding the film has not been without controversy with Portman’s stunt double Sarah Lane claiming that she performed 95% of the ballet scenes, pouring doubts over whether Portman really deserved all her prestigious awards. Ignoring all this controversy, what matters to me is whether the film was good or not, and I would have to say that it has been my favourite film of the year so far for its surprisingly spiritual take on the idea of perfection.
The film follows the story of Nina Sayers, a ballerina in a New York ballet company. When the new season opens the dancers are called to audition for the lead role, presented with the challenge of dancing both the black and white swans in a production of Swan Lake. Nina is told that she is only capable of dancing the white swan as she falters when it comes to the black swan, nevertheless she is chosen for the part and what ensues is a disturbing and frightening metamorphosis of a girl into a black swan (somewhat literally).
Despite the over-the-top and somewhat clichéd characters, I left the cinema remembering two things. Firstly, the ballet scenes, how beautiful yet dramatically effective they were at portraying Nina’s struggle. Secondly, the overwhelming sense of relief I experienced when Nina reaches her catastrophic end. For me these two things seem to grasp the nature of religion. In fact, I left convinced that this film was all about religion and anyone who thought otherwise just needed to watch it again and pay attention to the function of ritual in the film.
In order for any performer to succeed, their art must appear to be effortless in the eyes of the audience. It must seem as though they are dancing/singing/acting as if it comes as second nature to them. Yet far from being effortless, these professions are tiring, exhausting and loaded with countless rules which govern the performance and must be mastered. It is only by mastering a set of rules that these performers can attain such freedom to play and dance as they please, achieving perfection in their art. This process of mastering rules boils down to a mastery of one’s own self, which is also the goal of religious ritual.
Religious acts are sometimes obviously theatrical. In the Hajj for example Muslims become actors. We recreate the actions of a woman running between two hills looking for water to quench the thirst of her child, and we simulate the actions of Abraham stoning the devil. In every religious tradition one can find examples of rituals which are theatrical. In legal traditions such as Judaism and Islam, however, theatre is not restricted to the Mosque, the Synagogue or a site of pilgrimage. On a theological level the rules governing elaborate rituals in these religions are equal in importance to those governing what might seem mundane aspects of life; from the way one dresses and eats to the way one speaks. Through religious law, all aspects of life become an art to be mastered and that means attempting to master oneself in all aspects of life. In doing so believers aim to attain perfection.
Nina struggled to become the perfect dancer and could only achieve perfection by overcoming herself, hence her battle with her inner “black swan” in her dressing room during the interval of her performance. Her journey is disturbing, locked in an exaggerated and sexualised battle with herself. Yet struggle is not alien to religious tradition. The Jihad of the soul is an integral part of Islam, a reminder of the constant struggle with the desires of the self.
I was so disturbed by Nina’s claustrophobic struggle that once it was resolved at the end of the film, an overwhelming sense of catharsis took hold of me. Nina’s struggle consumes her but not before she manages a “perfect” dance routine. Similarly the end result of a successful Jihad of the soul and a successful mastery of religious ritual is a sense of release and complete comfort with oneself and God – it is the attainment of perfection. Muslim mystics have always likened this release to death. It has been termed the death before death, the realisation that one is as close to God in this life as they will be in the next. Once this has been realised, death becomes inconsequential, hence the film closes with a smile on Nina’s face as she whispers: “I was perfect.”
It was odd to be relieved at a tragedy that befalls a protagonist and that is what impressed me most about Aronofsky’s film; it turned death into something we could associate with relief because in death Nina overcomes herself and masters her rituals just as a mystic would. To me, this film was all about perfection and its success made me think: why is it that such a passionate and religious approach to perfection is restricted to professions in today’s secular society? What better way is there to strive for perfection and achieve a sense of beauty in every aspect of your life, than to treat it like a work of art?
– Black Swan is released on DVD and Blue-Ray on 16 May 2011
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