WARNING: SPOILERS FOR BOTH “BLACK SWAN” AND “THE RED SHOES”
Last week, I had the fascinating and disturbing experience that is watching Black Swan. Going into it, I knew that the plot involved some of my very favorite things: ballet, mental illness, and tyrannical ballet directors. I was prepared to find many similarities to The Red Shoes. I was kind of right. The differences in the way the two films skew the same basic concepts, however, is where it gets interesting.
The Red Shoes provides a study in different kinds of love, both good and destructive. There’s a traditional love triangle involving wunderkind composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), archetypal tyrannical ballet director Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), and ingenue Vicky Paige (real ballerina Moira Shearer). Lermontov believes in creative obsession, preferring that Vicky’s only commitment be to the ballet. Craster loves Vicky but is threatened by Lermontov’s influence. Vicky loves Craster, but she also loves to dance. When asked by Lermontov why she wants to dance, she replies, “Why do you want to live?” With this tug of war in place, every interpersonal relationship in the film is to an extent toxic, with Vicky always drawing the short straw. Her only pure love seems to be her love for her craft. Once could argue that even that was destructive, seeing as her suicide (or was it?) at the end of the film was while wearing the metaphor laden red shoes. The Red Shoes teaches us that our creativity and drive for art can destroy us, but that the human act of loving is just as dangerous.
Black Swan, no doubt, is chock full of wildly dysfunctional relationships. There’s Nina’s (Natalie Portman) controlling and infantilizing mother (Barbara Hershey), the ex prima who might be a shadow of Nina’s future (Winona Ryder), rival dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), and archetypal tyrannical ballet director Tomas (A very sexy Vincent Cassel). Unlike The Red Shoes, however, interpersonal relationships are put to the side to focus on Nina’s relationship with herself. Anorexic, obsessive, backward for her years Nina is a time bomb of internalized emotions. She dreams of being the perfect swan queen but struggles to channel her darker, more sinful side to play the black swan. Both Tomas and Lily attempt to draw out Nina’s looser side, the latter with partying and drugs and the former with good old fashioned seduction. The battle really ends up being between white and pink clad Nina and her darker alter ego (mental projection?). Nina’s black swan is everywhere: on the subway, in mirrors, and most eerily during sex.
Nina’s struggle is that her all consuming quest to become the perfect ballerina, and to be perfect in her role, destroys her. Her love for ballet is not pure like Vicky Paige’s. When Vicky dances in The Red Shoes, she is free and happy. When Nina practices obsessively, she is anxious, tense, and self harming. Like Vicky, she must dance, but perhaps not for the right reasons. To become the black swan, Nina literally has to kill her “white swan” self.
At the end of The Red Shoes, a dying Vicky asks her lover to take off the red shoes. She recognizes the sacrifice given to art at the eleventh hour. When Nina lies bleeding to death after her performance of Swan Lake, she whispers that she was perfect. She died happy in her own self destruction.
Both films raise a very important question. Is it possible to achieve artistic greatness without losing some of yourself in the pursuit?