Distant Relatives: Repulsion and Black Swan

Posted by julian On 2:41 PM
Robert here, with my series Distant Relatives, where we look at two films, (one classic, one modern) related through a common theme and ask what their similarities and differences can tell us about the evolution of cinema.  Since one of these films is still in theaters, I thought I'd mention that while certain plot elements are revealed I've done my best not to spoil any of the film's dramatic resolution.



Women well into their nervous breakdowns

We love to watch people go mad in the movies.  We watch people go mad because of fame and money.  We watch people go mad because of war or tragedy.  And we watch people go mad because of the relentless pursuit of perfection.  We're especially fascinated by beautiful people going mad.  "I hate to do this to a beautiful woman," said one of the cameramen of Catherine Deneuve on the set of Repulsion.  As if tormenting a plain looking person would be somewhat less repulsive.  We envy and idealize the beautiful.  What reason should they have to go mad, when life has dealt them such a winning hand?


But Natalie Portman's Nina and Catherine Deneuve's Carol do spiral down into madness.  Both are haunted by visions of walking nightmares.  Both see their reflections become broken and distorted.  And both are eventually brought to violence.  Each film contains moments of such fierce discomfort, we begin to expect (or fear) that the director is capable of showing us anything.  Now that is horror.  A scene of cuticle cutting in Repulsion suggests that Darren Aronofsky was probably influenced by that film's understanding of our empathy toward hangnail trauma.  But it's not fear of physical pain that's the catalyst for these beauties' insanty.

Would you fuck that girl?
They're all the same these bloody virgins, they're all teasers that's all.
Sex is dirty.  Sex is bad.  Both of these women have stilted sexuality in a world that demands they be sex objects.  Each film does a superb job of getting us into their heads, making us understand how they see sex.  As Carol lies in bed at night, hearing the animalistic moans and grunts being made by her sister and her sister's beau in the next room, we agree that they don't sound sexy at all.  They don't sound like something Carol would want to partake in.  They don't sound like something we would want to do.  For Nina, a subway encounter with a perverted old man tells us all we need to know about how sex appears before her: dirty, aggressive, a violation.  There's nothing present that suggests the comfort of love or even the enjoyment of pleasure.

For both of these women, being virginal is part of attaining or maintaining perfection.  Carol's pursuit of this ideal is subconscious.  She doesn't hope to achieve anything by accomplishing it, but being spoiled by a man would be akin to falling from grace.  For Nina, avoiding sex is part of her active pursuit of artistic perfection.  Her mother has pushed her in the direction of the pure innocent ballerina.  When company director Thomas Leroy insists that sexuality is her only path to perfection, it both contradicts and reinforces her attitudes toward sexuality and innocence.  After all, he demands she become sexual to embody the black swan, the dark character.  So sex may now be the goal, but it's still something sinister.

No way out

The activeness of Nina versus the passiveness of Carol is one of the major differences between these two films.  Yet in both cases it seemingly makes their downfall more inevitable.  Carol has no direction in life, no goals, no hobbies even.  Her descent into madness seems a natural progression of that emptiness.  For Nina, her pursuit of artistic triumph is so great, it can only lead where it eventually does - downward.  What both of these women do share is obsession, and that, however manifest, is the key to their fates.  The two women justify their darkness differently as well.  Black Swan plays with the doppleganger (echoing Swan Lake).  Nina, perhaps unable to accept any darkness within herself, creates mirror images of herself, onto whom she can project her inner evil.  Carol recedes within herself, becoming further and further the eternal victim.  She rationalizes her actions as necessary self-defense.  She has to.  By the end of her film, even the walls are attacking her.


In the over forty-five years between these two films, we notice that audiences have changed little.  Stories of beauty and obsession are still captivating.  Both films present us with a heroine who the picture empathizes with and sexualizes, almost becoming another one of the many gazing and lecherous men that surround them.  Like Nina, Black Swan the film is more active in its pursuit of our emotional distress.  The film is bombastic, swirling around, throwing a large amount of stimuli at is from all sides.  Repulsion is more passive like Carol, building slowly to a point where fantastic images truly shock.  Both methods work for their respective films, though the more modern one is maybe indicative of a time when the weight of film history and media saturation requires images be louder.  But however the times have changed, we still respond to beauty in peril.  We still are shocked at beauty embodying evil.  And like that camerman we feel terrible about it, but keep it in our gaze.

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