Black Swan’s Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) and Suspiria’s Susie Bannon (Dakota Johnson) dance across the void of madness with a freeing sensation. They have emptied themselves completely, embracing the horror in order to satiate their hunger for artistic perfection. It is an obsession and it possesses them to a potent, self-destructive measure.
“When you dance the dance of another, you make yourself in the image of its creator. You empty yourself so that her work can live within you.”
Undeniably gifted, Nina Sayers trains to precision and avoids thinking about her own disordered eating and self-harm. Her unhinged mother has bathed her in baby pinks and stuffed teddy bears, she’s padded her life with the comforts of a child. Jaded though she may be, Nina has ambition and an unending appetite for eminence. She craves the dual role of Odette and Odile in Swan Lake with an all-consuming passion. Easily brilliant as the elegant Odette, Nina struggles to cross into the more sinister personality of Odile. Encouraged to unlock a darker side of herself, she becomes more reckless, digging deeper to find something of Odile within herself.
Sina progresses in her rehearsals, absorbing more and more of Odile, her hallucinations and anxiety attack increase in extremity. She pulls feathers from her shoulders, cackles into the face of her raging mother, and bleeds into the stagnant waters of her bath. She spirals. Nina’s paranoid fear of her own body causes her to mutilate herself, peeling back her skin, scratching at her back until she draws blood. She wholly believes that her own reflection wants to kill her. It is nightmarish and claustrophobic, but there seems to be no other way for Nina to reach the transcendence she covets. So, she sinks deeper into the madness.
In Berlin, Susie Bannion wraps herself up in maroons and greys, plaits her hair down her back, and vibrates with creative energy. A former Mennonite, she is at first plain and ordinary — but when she gives herself to the dance, she is invincible. Susie, after giving her soul to the witches, becomes increasingly frenetic, precise and incredible in her movements. Though pain is present — the nightmares, feeling of Mother Markos’ hands pressing at her through the floorboards, and the wearing of every muscle and bone in her body. The witches want to devour her for breakfast, yet somehow in all their analyzing of her, they failed to realize the extent of her resilience, her strength. They know she has the beatings of perfection inside of her, but they are blind to her full power.
The most jarring of bodily horrors comes at the end of the first act. Susie rehearses the Volk dance in jarring sweeps and bends. Her actions direct those of Olga — the dancer whose place she had taken— who shrieks and moans as her body is flung into the mirrors of a smaller studio. Her bones are shattered and unhinged, her skin becomes unrecognizable, her muscles snap. Every succinctly choreographed step Susie takes tears Olga’s body apart until she is nothing more than an aching mass of organic material. It is profoundly gruesome, but it is also profoundly illuminating. This is that darker thing. The thing that carves out a clear path of perfection.
“Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go.”
Nina and Susie both have spiraled into some infernal place, but they are both wholly free. In reaching artistic perfection, they have unlocked some other plane of being—whether that is literal or metaphorical is irrelevant. Susie has taken up all of her power, cracked her chest open to find something primal deep inside; Nina simply transcends, lying on a mat as her own blood pools across her abdomen, a smile brushing serenely across her lips. This is about a transformation, a destruction of self. A metamorphosis into something higher only achieved by relinquishing the whole of oneself to something darker, something more beautiful, more perfect.
Black Swan is considered to be a metaphor for the birthing of an artist, a visual representation of Nina’s psychic and physical pilgrimage for artistic perfection—and the price she must pay. Suspiria tells of similar birth. The birth of Susie as Mother Suspiriorum is her final evolution into a perfect form. Both of their bodies are vehicles for the dance, carriers of artistic metaphor and bodily violence. They have given themselves completely to the maddening throes of the dance, and they are terrifying. They are perfect. An obsession finally sated.
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Jenna Kalishman is a freelance writer and cinephile based in Colorado who often focuses on female and queer perspectives as well as female-led projects. She spends much of her free time listening to Stevie Nicks and re-watching Carol. You can find her on twitter @jenkalish.