Did you become entranced with the dark and twisted spiral of a high-strung ballerina? Were you terrified and mesmerized by a young woman’s descent into madness because of previous unexplored aspects of her personality? Then do I have the guide for you.
You see, Black Swan was not the first film to delve into these topics. There are many great features in the horror, thriller, and suspense oeuvre that present this kind of shocking character study.
You certainly cannot go wrong with one of the earliest films about a young woman losing her mind. Carnival of Souls, the b-movie masterpiece from 1962, tells the story of Candace Hilligoss (a wonderful turn by Mary Henry). Candace escapes from a horrible car accident–the vehicle careens off a bridge into a raging river–to continue her career as an organist. She takes a new position in a town that seems to harbor a dark secret. Are the locals really following her? Where is the mysterious music coming from? And why is she drawn to the carnival at the pier? Presented with dream-like visuals and a haunting calliope-styled score (played on an organ), Carnival of Souls is a beautiful and haunting story of a woman heading out on her own for the first time and fearing every change.
Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy provides three very different examples of the sub-genre. The first is the 1965 black and white character piece Repulsion. This is perhaps the most direct corollary to the mood and style of Black Swan. It follows Carole (Catherine Deneuve, stunning), a young receptionist at a salon who is left alone for the first time in her adult life. She slowly loses her ability to function outside of the home. Where Black Swan uses Nina’s accidental injuries to portray her digression, Repulsion uses the condition of Carole’s apartment. There is a plate of rabbit that slowly rots, garbage piles up, and Carole takes stranger and stranger measures to insure no one can get in.
The second film is Rosemary’s Baby from 1968. Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow’s greatest role), a newly pregnant newlywed, becomes convinced that everyone in her new apartment complex is plotting against her baby. She loses trust in everyone around her, except for an older friend who warned her against moving into the apartment. While the ending can be viewed as very straightforward, there is ambiguity as to whether or not anything that happens in this film actually happens. Is it really Rosemary’s biggest fear or paranoid delusions brought on by too many changes hitting her life all at once?
The third film is The Tenant from 1972. It breaks the pattern only in casting Roman Polanski himself as the male lead Trelkovsky. Like Rosemary, Trelkovsky moves into a new apartment complex and is living in the shadow of tragedy. The previous tenant killed herself. The other tenants say she was a loon and a loner, but Trelkovsky begins to doubt their account. He’s convinced that everyone around him is trying to change his identity. Of the delusions in the Apartment Trilogy, Trelkovsky’s are the grandest and most in line with the level of self-doubt and deception demonstrated by Nina in Black Swan.
These recommendations are not meant to say a more narrative-driven film can’t experience a similar character arc. 1973′s Suspiria, the premier women in dance thriller, is all about the plot. The fact that Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) thinks that something unnatural is going on in the dance academy isn’t just integral to the plot; it is the plot. Her unraveling is secondary to the increasingly bizarre visuals and tragedies that befall the school. The imagery is most likely an inspiration Darren Aronofsky drew upon when creating Black Swan.
If you don’t mind the gore in Black Swan, you will most likely love In My Skin from 2002. Starring writer/director Marina de Van as Esther, In My Skin is a character study of a woman removed from her body. She is a purely intellectual being who is forced through a rather nasty-looking cut to explore her body. The pain becomes her obsession, isolating her from everyone she knows and loves. She is exploring her body the same way Nina explores her sexuality in Black Swan. In My Skin is a particularly brutal film. Though Esther’s experiments with self-injury are not shown on the screen, Marina de Van’s performance, especially the tight close-ups of her face, and the brilliant sound design are more than graphic enough to turn your stomach. It is a breathtaking experience.
If for some strange reason you weren’t looking for a horror film, I can only recommend this: Lars von Trier’s narrative films all feature a female character undergoing major emotional turmoil and do not shy away from letting you see their falls. One of the more bizarre, stylized, and engaging films is The Idiots from 1998. Karen (Bodil Jorgensen) becomes involved with a group of adults who pretend to be mentally handicapped in public places as part of a life philosophy. The film–a very dark comedy–follows her attempts to fully commit to the philosophy as she has nothing else to believe in. She throws herself into this process the same way that Nina dedicates everything to ballet.
2003′s Dogville is another strong arc. Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Grace is stunning. She is a woman who wonders into a quiet town asking for shelter. The town decides they will take turns using her to do their every bidding. The film is all about the extent to which the society we envelope ourselves in can drag us down to unimaginable depths because the greater society thinks it is the right thing to do. Grace is the victim of this the same way Nina has no choice but to fight for the lead in Swan Lake for the sake of her career. Grace’s only route to security is full commitment to a brutal list of demands that transform her mind.
There is one more film that contorts this kind of arc in every possible direction. It is the 2001 film Series 7: The Contenders. This dark comedy–a send-up of reality TV that managed to predict editing techniques and character arcs long before they became standard tropes of the genre–shows six Americans randomly chosen to compete on a murderous reality show. Two-time winner Dawn (Brooke Smith) is due to give birth any day, but most win one more series to earn her freedom from the program. She has already been transformed by the circumstances of her life, but begins to regain her humanity over the series. Other characters become self-obsessed monsters, or strong contenders, or even lose their desire to live. They are forced to throw themselves into an alien world for the right to save their very lives. Nina has a similar attitude in Black Swan, forcing herself to do everything for her first leading role because the alternative is fading away without any applause.
Hopefully, the experience of Black Swan’s unique play on character study and the thriller is motivation enough to seek out some of these great films.