Saturday, June 30, 2012

Red Shoes Black Swan

by Drew Martin
I recently watched Aronofsky’s The Black Swan, a title often said in the same breath as The Red Shoes. The 1948 classic references the Hans Christian Andersen’s tale about a proud girl whose flashy shoes make her uncontrollably dance. She cannot stop them and goes so far as to have her feet chopped off by an executioner. Her amputated feet keep dancing, however, and her only escape from them is when she ascends to heaven. The Red Shoes film is entirely about ballet whereas The Black Swan superficially uses dance to stage a coming-of-age drama. I asked a colleague who was a professional dancer in his youth what he thought of The Black Swan. He replied: “First and foremost it was a horror film, coincidentally about dance. It could have been about any crazy girl.”

While The Red Shoes is an obvious source of The Black Swan, what came to mind when I was watching the latter was the 1929 short film Un Chien Andalou by Buñuel and Dalí, and The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. Un Chien Andalou has many moments that reverberate through the 83 years of film that follow it, such as the slamming of a pursuing aggressor’s hand in a door frame. While that too is played out again in The Black Swan, what I found particularly deliberate were the totally focused, gross-out body scenes. In the beginning of Un Chien Andalou, a man slices open the eye of a woman (it is actually a calf’s eye). In another scene, ants crawl out of a hole in his palm (a theme Dalí repeats in his paintings, which alludes to the decomposed state in which he found his boyhood pet bat). In The Black Swan, Nina (Natalie Portman) scratches and pokes at herself, opening up sores. She pulls a tag of loose skin above her finger nail up to her knuckle, plucks a black feather from her shoulder and stabs herself with a shard of mirror, creating a blood-soaked (and very yonic) orifice in her abdomen. These shock-accents are also the film’s greatest weakness. To make a coming-of-age film about a young woman and to use the menstrual and first-act blood of womanhood is not only a little too obvious but also sullies its nature. The comparison to The Glass Menagerie is because of the oppressive mother in a fatherless household and the general raw-American-neurosis, which the play captures so well. It is a much more dimensional study of the confines of a broken home. Unfortunately, the characters in The Black Swan are flat. What I prefer most about Menagerie’s approach is the use of glass to symbolize the special fragility of becoming a young adult.

I rented The Black Swan from a local library, watched the 1973 televised production of The Glass Menagerie with Katharine Hepburn on Netflix and saw Un Chien Andalou and The Red Shoes on YouTube. 

The 16-minute-long Un Chien Andalou can be watched here at

The Red Shoes can be watched in its entirety at
If you do not want to watch the whole movie, at least watch the dance sequence from 1:03:20 to 1:18:44.