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Posted on January 16, 2011 by


Black Swan: Like Fight Club, but with girl-on-girl

It’d be a shame for Tyler Durden to slug this mug.

By Patrick Bigsby

Not being a ballerina, I just have to guess that all the cattiness, neuroses and hyper-sexuality displayed by the dance company in Black Swan are either too unrealistic or too damning to win support from actual dancers. In filmmaking terms, Black Swan has flaws (see TuranStevens or Denby for more details). But these imperfections, perhaps distracting at times, shouldn’t prevent viewers and critics from accepting the film’s place in the man vs. self canon.

Critics have derided Black Swan as too camp and compared it unfavorably to Showgirls.  I’d happily discuss the merits of Showgirls as a parody film (intentional or not) if time and space allowed, but the two films are only superficially similar. Both involve dancing, a young woman’s desire to escape mediocrity, ageism in the entertainment industry, as well as some notorious girl-on-girl scenes.

This is the kind of flawless dance technique you can’t learn in ballet. Thanks to moviedearest.blogspot.com for the image.

That’s about where the two part ways, given that Showgirls’ protagonist, Nomi, is struggling not so much against her own limitations but against an exploitative, backstabbing community. In Black SwanNatalie Portman’s Nina is fighting herself and her identity. This, of course, is a direct mirror of the plot of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet – the very work being staged by Nina’s dance company, which just happens to have a killer man vs. self narrative of its own.

I don’t consider Black Swan to be a parody – I argue it’s instead more in-line with director David Fincher’s 1999 film, Fight Club. The unnamed protagonist of Fight Club is in search of a way to fight the system and escape his role as a corporate drone in the ultra-masculine environment of a basement where dudes slug each other for hours. Nina is in search of artistic perfection and escape from her role as the Swan Queen in the ultra-feminine environment of frilly tutus. Both must reconcile their increasingly dissident fantasized alter-egos with their real personalities, with similarly destructive results. The narrator of Fight Club feels alive when he gets punched in the face. Trade that right cross for Nina’s orgasm and you’ve got Black Swan.

"I want you to pirouette at me as hard as you can."

Black Swan shouldn’t be in the running for any major awards (inexplicably, a great deal of award buzz exists – Portman is even favored to win tonight’s Golden Globe for Best Actress) save possibly those related to art direction, and I’m not trying to plead its case to the committee. But the film shouldn’t be dismissed as total frivolity or a Showgirls derivative either. Hardcore ballet enthusiasts might not be pleased, but anyone interested in the literary theme of self-discovery (or, uh, a racier definition of self-discovery) could find merit.

Of course, a little Gina Gershon wouldn’t hurt either…

Patrick Bigsby