Babes in bondage

YEAR IN FILM: Or, 2010's perfection-pursuing fatal femmes

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Failed ballerina Erica (Barbara Hershey) is just one of the demons haunting Nina (Natalie Portman) in Black Swan.
PHOTO BY NIKO TAVERNISE

arts@sfbg.com

YEAR IN FILM 'Tis the season to dismantle. For us film critic types, that means picking over the past year's movie offerings with the ill-advised intensity of Natalie Portman working a hangnail in Black Swan. (That scene was so gross, yes?)

Speaking of sadomasochistic tendency (and La Portman), 2010 saw an intriguing mini-trend in psychological horror, most exemplified by a trio of films: Vincenzo Natali's riotous sci-fi cheesefest Splice, Mark Romanek's austerely devastating Never Let Me Go, and Darren Aronofsky's aforementioned phenom Black Swan. Superficially, these movies couldn't be more different. Splice is an homage to B exploitation and Cronenbergian body horror; Never Let Me Go is a pedigreed adaptation of a dead-serious study of emotional subtlety and Black Swan is a grandiose, visually exhilarating spectacle, not to mention one of the weirdest films ever to likely get an Oscar nod.

Dig a little deeper (perhaps with Winona Ryder's Black Swan nail file?) and some surprisingly similar themes, motifs, and motivations become clear. This new breed of female-centered "body horror" challenges certain well-worn horror tropes, whether intentionally or not, along with the subject-object relationship of women in movies in general. And while female body horror is certainly nothing new (vaginas with teeth, anyone?) these movies do offer a refreshing new spin.

Genetic clones, genetic hybrids, and guano-crazy ballerinas, the female characters in these films exemplify the idea of the "other" superficially, but also collapse the traditional idea the "monstrous feminine." Even if we aren't meant to identify with them in totality, their terror is still our terror, not some janky Freudian nightmare of their otherness and our supposed repulsion to it. This kind of female subject-object horror revisionism has been seen before — Georges Franju's 1960 French quasi-surrealist masterpiece Eyes Without a Face and the raucous little Canadian cult indie Ginger Snaps (2000) come to mind — but it hasn't punctured mainstream Hollywood film in quite this way before.

All three movies work off the principle relationship of the matriarch and her offspring: Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Dren (Delphine Chaneac) in Splice; Nina (Natalie Portman) and her mother (Barbara Hershey, her plastic surgery–pummeled visage unintentionally representing the concept of "face horror") in Black Swan; and Miss Emily (Charlotte Rampling) and later Madame (Nathalie Richard) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan) in Never Let Me Go.

Black Swan goes so far as to encourage a curiously gender-flipped Oedipal reading of Nina's relationship with her (s)mother, who feverishly paints portraits of her daughter while Nina slaves away at ballet practice. Indeed, the movie's true WTF moment comes when, at the behest of her tyrannical director Thomas (Vincent Cassel), Nina masturbates, almost violently so, until she realizes that her mother is watching her from the bedroom corner.

From her raw, toe-shoe ravaged feet to her undernourished frame to the intermittent appearances of blood oozing from imaginary sores, Nina experiences physical and psychological disturbances that lead to an eventual complete breakdown and physical metamorphosis in the classic body horror tradition. "I wanna be perfect," she laments. That desire for perfection ultimately manifests itself in the masochistic self-infliction of physical pain to achieve transcendence. It's a subject Aronofsky mined to great effect in his last film, 2008's The Wrestler.

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