Perfection in Art: Black Swan and The Red Shoes

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Black Swan is my fourth favorite movie of all time, and The Red Shoes, which I watched on Friday night, has a fantastic shot at making the next version of that list. I watched The Red Shoes in part because I had heard it was a major influence on Black Swan from various reliable sources. The influence is pretty clear and they work superbly as companion pieces to each other. Not only are both about ballet (something I know little about, it should be said, so please excuse any technical flubs on my part there), but both also ask whether it is enough to be perfect at something, or if it’s even possible to be perfect at something, or if the price we pay for perfection is worth the payoff. The discussion of these ideas will necessarily involve spoilers, so please be warned that I will spoil both of these films several times over. If you’ve not seen one, take some time and get it watched before reading the rest of this. If you’ve not seen either, I don’t even want to talk to you! Begone, foul creature!

Perfection is a hard thing. It’s something you can aim at, wish for, but hardly ever reach. And perfection in the performing arts is even tougher, because, say, a ballet dancer is dependent not only on herself but also the composer, choreographer, her partner, and all the other people in front of and behind the scenes. Would Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) or Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) even conceive of the idea of perfecting their craft if they weren’t surrounded by people that helped them get to such a high level to begin with? I’d argue that they wouldn’t. Perfection in art is also tricky because we have to consider whether the artist’s opinion matters, or if it’s all on the audience to decide if something’s perfect. For example, I’d say that both Black Swan and The Red Shoes get really darn close to perfection, but might their makers see imperfections? Or, to look at it another way, do the people behind, um, 300: Rise of the Silver Surfer or whatever it’s called think that they’ve made a perfect movie even if (critical) audiences don’t agree? Quandaries built upon quandaries. So for the sake of this piece, let’s agree that perfection is possible in art and that it’s up to the artist to decide if they’ve reached that point since both movies concern themselves with an artist rather than a lowly critic and we should follow suit.

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Nina Sayers is driven to perfection from our first introduction to her on until her tragic (?) end. She begins the film as part of the company of dancers overseen by Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) but quickly rises to the become the principal dancer in the dual role of The Swan Queen who becomes the titular Black Swan. She possesses all of the technical skills to dance both parts but lacks the passion to perform the more sultry and emotionally motivated Black Swan role. It is this hurdle she must jump to reach perfection in her craft.

Victoria Page has less to deal with internally. She’s a well respected dancer and is employed early on in The Red Shoes to be part of the company run by Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) who soon promotes her to the principal dancer role in an adaptation of The Red Shoes. The structure of this film is quite different from that of Black Swan as we actually see Victoria’s transcendent moment in the middle of the film and only then is the drama introduced. See, Lermontov doesn’t believe that a great artist can be great (perfect, even) if they have any other kind of passion in their life, including love for another human being. And it is Victoria’s unfortunate fate to fall in love with the composer of her ballet, the similarly talented Julian Craster (Marius Goring). So she is cast out of the ballet company and into Craster’s arms, but she’s never quite satisfied with giving up her best opportunity to become the perfect dancer under Lermontov’s tutelage. The final scene has the two men pulling her in their respective dimensions and, though she initially picks Lermontov’s promise of stardom and perfection, she ultimately realizes she can’t choose between them and instead jumps in front of a train.

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Ok, now that you’ve been reminded of the circumstances in each film, let’s talk perfection. The first question is whether perfection is enough. Well, that’s a little broad, so let’s narrow it down a little. Is perfection enough to cover the lack of other human emotion or connection that one might normally experience? Both films demonstrate this lack in not-so-subtle ways (one of the things I like best about these films is just how big and obvious they are. Yeah, it’s total melodrama, but I love that stuff if it’s done well and they both knock these emotionally charged balls out of the park). In Black Swan, Nina is almost childlike in her lack of experience with love or even friendly camaraderie that might develop in a work environment. We see plenty of examples of the other ballerinas in her company being friends but her potential for perfection has driven her to ignore everybody else so that she can focus solely on that one pursuit. And when one of those other ballerinas, Lily (Mila Kunis) does come on to her she’s at a complete loss for what to do. It’s through that connection with Lily, tumultuous and ultimately unsuccessful though it is, that Nina ultimately achieves her perfection. There’s a point where Nina must sacrifice her budding friendship/romance with Lily and even her sanity for dance. She does so and it comes at the price of her life, just another debt paid to the god of perfection. Victoria, too, pays that debt, though she already knows that she has the seed of perfection in here where Nina only believes that she does. I’ve already covered how Victoria chooses dance over love and then realizes that even the necessity of that choice is too much for her to handle so she commits suicide. Unlike Black Swan, The Red Shoes actually shows us the toll a “normal” life takes on those that have tasted perfection. She is not content to just be a wife and even sneaks off during her husband’s first performance to be in a show of The Red Shoes. It’s not like she wasn’t warned about Lermontov’s weird (though maybe not incorrect, as the film never demonstrates otherwise) ideas about love and art, either. In fact, she was present for her predecessor’s demise as Lermontov was informed of the previous principal dancer’s love affair and summarily dismissed her in the middle of a performance. Still, both women see the toll their quest for perfection takes or will take and both decide that the toll is “worth it,” at least before they both die.

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The fact that both die after achieving their perfection (The Red Shoes delays the death by an hour or so of film, but the effect is there) is another point worth noting. Death is the ultimate price but history is riddled with great artists who are driven to death by their art. Cobain and van Gogh paved the way for Nina and Victoria. Of course, the greatness of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or Starry Night is kind of unquestionable, but did Nina and Victoria reach those lofty heights, or were they just dreamers? It’s a question left up to the audience, but I think the films both argue that they did realize perfection, if only briefly. Let’s look at the dances themselves. There’s no better way to judge a dancer than by her dances, and both manage to transcend the bounds of boring old cinema by using clever camera tricks and augmented imagery to show us just how good these ballerinas are. In Black Swan, Nina is constantly told that she needs to work on her passion if she’s going to truly transform into the role of the Black Swan. By the end, through all of the paranoia and failed intimacies, she does finally have enough passion to quite literally sprout feathers and become the Black Swan. It’s her shining moment and through an increasing use of CGI, director Darren Aronofsky shows us that she’s made it, she has fulfilled her promise as a dancer. Victoria, too, gets a little help from her directors, Messrs. Powell and Pressburger, to show off her fantastic dancing skills. Though The Red Shoes debuted around 60 years earlier than Black Swan, it is no less visually impressive and even inventive even without the aid of computer generated imagery. The Archers (as the directing duo was known) used myriad techniques to bring what was happening in the story (and Victoria’s head) to life. Early, it’s all a lighthearted dance; Victoria sees the titular shoes in a shop window and immediately imagines herself in them, dancing beautifully. She buys the shoes and from then is fated to die wearing them as they force her to dance and dance through dreams and nightmares, circuses and ballrooms and mindscapes, with people real and imagined, flesh and blood and cellophane. Through it all we are transported into the world of the fairy tale by way of intimate camera angles, early rotoscoping (placing a smaller frame containing Victoria among a larger frame of impressionist background and foreground and painting out everything but her from her little frame) and wire work. The DP, Jack Cardiff, even went as far as messing with the film speed during the dancers leaps into the air so that they would appear to defy gravity for just a moment, lifted by the sheer power of their dance and artistry. If these images and tricks aren’t enough to imply that The Red Shoes was a complete artistic success in the world of the film, the characters tell us. It’s only The Red Shoes that tempts Victoria back from her ordinary life and to her eventual death.

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Now that we’ve talked about what the dancers give up to be dancers and established that both do reach a level of perfection, let’s talk about dying for art. In researching this piece I found two essays written for the Criterion edition of The Red Shoes, both of which cited a quote from Michael Powell where he considers the changing values of a peacetime society, “For ten years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art.” Yes, art is important enough for people to die in its name, I think. It’s sad when it happens, but there are worse things one can die for. Nina and Victoria share this belief and dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to their craft. Will a perfect artist (or an artist who achieves perfection in their art) necessarily die from the effort, or from being separated from their art? I don’t think so, but both of these films indulge their melodramatic sides and melodrama can and should amplify those self-destructive tendencies artists have to their logical – if maybe a little histrionic – ends. Dance is such a physical activity, too, so the stress and strain of being a perfect dancer also lends itself to the final end. When an artist achieves perfection, where else might they go? We are programmed to want to see people go out on top rather than extending their career at the risk of becoming something less than they were. See the groaning about the US version of The Office‘s overly long run as opposed to the proclamations of True Detective‘s greatness as it wrapped up its very definitively ended first season. We don’t want to see anybody who reaches so high fall because it means they’re human rather than some kind of otherworldly entity that has momentarily graced us with their presence. Death at the height of artistic achievement means we never have to be reminded that people can be petty or imperfect. That’s why these movies are fantasies and play with fairy tales. We are more willing to accept the ideas of perfection and art if they’re couched in these old old stories. The films are modern versions of those stories, reminding us that art can change a person and even drive them to ignore the impulse to stay alive in favor of the need to create. Nina and Victoria are at once cautionary tales and folk heroes, an admonition to avoid giving oneself entirely to an artistic cause and an example of what great art one can create when they do dedicate themselves to art.

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2 thoughts on “Perfection in Art: Black Swan and The Red Shoes

  1. Great piece to read. Black Swan is my all time favorite movie, so nice to see it ranks so high in your list as well. I really should continue making a top 100 list. I once made a start of one, but never finished it.

    Like you I also checked out the Red Shoes after reading it was an inspiration for Black Swan. It was a beautiful film although it did not have as much impact on me as Black Swan did.

    1. Thanks for reading this super long piece! Black Swan is for sure a favorite of mine. The Red Shoes is really gorgeous. Can’t wait to pick it up on Blu Ray!

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