The Academy Award nominations came in this week, and I think it’s safe to say that Natalie Portman is almost a shoe-in to win the Oscar for Best Actress. And deservedly so. Her work in Black Swan is complex, poignant, affecting, and emotionally powerful.
The Wrestler‘s connection is a no-brainer. In many ways, Black Swan can be looked at as a great companion piece to Mickey Rourke’s fictional pro-wrestling biopic. Both movies are intimate character studies whose stylistic approach borders on documentarian. Both movies explore a character’s quest for balance in his/her personal and professional lives. Both movies look at what kind of abuse a person will put themselves through for their art or life-calling. And both movies are tragedies in the most classical sense.
So while Black Swan has a more formalistic feel thanThe Wrestler, they really are great companion pieces. What’s more interesting, though, is how flawed, complex, and interesting of a character Portman’s Nina is. Filled with sexual longing and repression, obsessed with perfection, and pushing herself to embrace her darker side (to the point of personal ruin), this is the kind of role that mainstream hollywood actresses rarely get a chance to sink their teeth into. Instead, complex character studies are almost always reserved for male characters (ala The Wrestler), and female characters are usually relegated to interesting supporting roles or boring, simplistic lead roles as the quirky pixie or “woman overcoming obstacles to show strength and determination.”
Until recently, this latter role was considered feminist in many ways. It was an illustration of how a woman can stand her ground in a man’s world and achieve whatever she desires.
A role like Portman’s in Black Swan, though, is (in my opinion), significantly more “feminist” in this day and age in that it presents a fully realized human character. She is beautiful and the object of sexual desire, but she is flawed and determined and has weakness and challenges. There is a realistic trade-off between her self-empowerment and her own moral code, and she isn’t a role model or stereotype of empowerment.
In other words, she’s a real person and not an easily dismissed stereotype.
The other movie I mentioned was Roman Polanski’s 1965 psychological horror movie Repulsion. This one is hard to watch, and, like Black Swan, has a sexually repressed female character coming face-to-face with her fears, insecurities, and the gender stereotypes of the time. It is extremely similar to Black Swan in tone and style, and each movie blurs the line between “reality” and the world created in the character’s head.
And to make matters more interesting, almost anyone would have to concede that Repulsion is, at least in some respects, a horror film. And…you ready for this? So is Black Swan.
It took me a while to realize it in the first viewing, but Black Swan is more psychological horror film than it is drama. Complete with “murder” and frightening, visceral images, the movie crosses over to that taboo world of the “scary movie” so seamlessly (and with such skill) that most people don’t bother to regard it as such. And the Lovecraftian idea of a person changing into an animal or monster (whether literal or not) screams of horror at its most primal and affecting level.
“But wait,” I hear the indie, movie-snob purist proclaim. “Horror is reserved for offensively stereotypical characters and cheap, disgusting thrills.” My response is: absolutely not. The horror genre, with movies like The Exorcist and The Shining, allows a skillful director to directly confront the deepest, most primal and frightening elements of human life. Sexuality, rage, madness…this is the stuff of horror, and, like it or not, these are themes that run daily through our lives and have a profound affect on who we are and what we do.
So in a horror film, you can approach issues that are complicated, frightening, and beyond the black-and-white world of the “stand up and cheer” drama. Portman’s character is so complex not in spite of the genre but directly because of it. We can peer into the deep dark depths of her mind and confront the murky reality of how her life choices have stunted her growth as a person…and how her intense need to break free from her self-created prison leads to a horrendous expression of human weakness and base instinct.
Were this movie a straight drama, there would be no room for that kind of exploration. The character study would be toned down…tempered…and the character would almost certainly be relegated to the stereotypical realm of the timid, blushing virgin or the emotionally unstable, repressed victim. With Aronofsky’s approach–using the conventions and imagery of the horror film–the character becomes more basic and primal. More real, more complicated, and beyond the bounds of simplistic psychology or easily defined gender roles.
Yes, the horror film is a great place to break all kinds of conventions and have the audience barely notice that you’re breaking the rules. Which leads me to Sam Raimi’s schlock horrorfest, Drag Me to Hell.
This movie serves as another great (but wildly different) example of how the horror genre can allow a filmmaker to destroy gender stereotypes without breaking a sweat. Allison Lohman’s Christine Brown seems, at first, to be the typical girl-next-door character. Unlike Black Swan, this movie keeps its characters fairly simplistic and accessible. This is a woman you know in your everyday life, fighting to maintain her self-esteem and empower herself in the world.
Boooring. This familiar “empowered” woman character is the furthest thing from a step forward in feminist cinema. She’s unoffensive in almost every way–a “safe” character who doesn’t get naked or scream of sex or seduction.
But then the movie goes where you don’t really expect. As Christine confronts the evil curse brought on by wronging an old gypsy lady, she changes.
Basically, she becomes Bruce Campbell. She’s fighting for her life, saying catchy one-liners and being hit with every disgustingly abusive horror element you can think of from blood to maggots to being flung violently through the air. Instead of playing this down, though, Raimi embraces it. Just because she’s a woman doesn’t mean she can’t get her hands dirty and dig up a dead body in the rain.
Add to this the Justin Long “doting boyfriend,” a devilishly and purposely one-dimensional character who is usually female in these kinds of movies, and it’s clear Raimi knows exactly what he’s doing.
But that isn’t the whole story of why Christine is shattering stereotypes left and right. The real reason she breaks beyond any gender stereotype is simple: she’s hilarious. And not in the “quirky woman” or “bumbling beauty” way, either. She’s giving shifty-eyed looks, killing cats, and delivering 80′s action-movie one-liners like there’s no tomorrow, and it’s something we’ve never seen a female character do before. All the while, Raimi is careful to keep her decidedly feminine and attractive, showing that, yes, a woman can be both a woman and a badass without falling into some horribly stereotypical “femme fatale” role.
The best thing about this role, though, is that the audience doesn’t even seem to register how much new ground its breaking. This is a goofy horror movie with buckets of grossness in every frame, not some serious drama about a woman’s role in society. Christine just is the way she is–an integral part of an extremely entertaining movie.
When you get down to it, that’s the most progressive thing about the horror genre and what it can do with stereotypes of gender, race, and creed. A horror movie isn’t there to break new social ground. It exists to tell a story well and make us confront the darkness of the human condition–either in a serious, psychologically driven way or a visceral, thrilling way that can purge some modicum of our pent-up frustration and aggression. Within this framework, a director can either do great social damage or really present us with characters and stories that defy social conventions by embracing genre conventions.
Of course there are thousands of examples of how the horror genre has been used in an exploitative fashion, but Black Swan and Drag Me to Hell are two examples of how subtly powerfully the genre can be when approached with respect and creativity. Because sometimes the best way to shatter gender stereotypes is just to go straight for the jugular.