Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014) and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) are sister films; aggressive, violent, and unsafe — each swimming in the psychological waters of self conception, artistic capacity, and personal drive. Both follow an artist’s increasing madness in attaining perfection with greater and greater costs. Black Swan’s Nina and Whiplash’s Andrew are driven by demanding instructors who push them beyond their limits into paranoia, madness, and a singular focus towards their goals. Their narrative structures are stripped down to key scenes, characters, and ideas that function to drive their themes with intense almost thriller like energy — propelling both films into uncharted artistic territory. It’s almost savage at times. But within their ravaging, aggressive, cinematic spectacle — full of anger, self contempt, interpersonal artistic turmoil and at times outright emotional and physical violence — both Black Swan and Whiplash tell the truth; they unravel the costs that come with attempting something inhuman — transcendence.
Transcendence is a fancy word; here it refers not just to existing above the physical plane of existence but more to Nina and Andrews’ drive to rise above normality into the extraordinary. For Andrew it’s greatness — as he blankly tells his girlfriend before breaking up with her, “I want to be great…I want to be one of the greats.” The next Charlie Parker. For Nina, the challenge it to become the black swan, a role foreign to her, that will require total metamorphosis of who she is. Where do these drives come from? Andrew’s father is a mediocre success while Nina’s mother gave up her career and never amounted to much. Here, identity, plays a key role — both Nina and Andrew are driven by an internal fear of becoming their parents who will be forgotten. Both films note the social isolation of their parents — how much they depend on their children for meaning. Andrew and Nina will have none of it — they’ve made promises to themselves that they will rise above, they will be known and remembered.
The instructors, Thomas and Fletcher, are opportunities to move beyond the banal normality of everyday human life. In a certain sense both Thomas and Fletcher represent competing parental figures; against their coddling parents, Thomas and Fletcher are their way out — and so the desire to be pushed, driven to unknown artistic limits, does not arise from the instructors, as demanding as they may seem, it comes from within Nina and Andrew. “The only person getting in the way is you,” Thomas states to Nina. When her mother challenges Thomas’s opinion — that he’s working her to hard, Nina defends him. Fletcher makes a similar point to Andrew, the next Charlie Parker wouldn’t get discouraged — Andrew nods — we see in his eyes that he won’t be that person to give up. Fletcher and Thomas are not the source of their drives, they are environments that let them flourish. This is key because both Whiplash and Black Swan are not about the instructors, but about the protagonists; their desires, their capacities, the costs they’re willing to bear and most importantly the actions they’re willing to take.
These are introductory comments — what’s more interesting is what both films have to say about transcendence itself and the path to it. Transcendence doesn’t come easily, or without costs, and looks different for Nina than for Andrew. In Black Swan Nina is tasked with with becoming both the white swan and the black swan. Nina embodies the white swan; fragile, weak, vulnerable, virginal — we see that in the way she dances throughout the film — her face evokes anxiety, fear, isolation, and need. Nina’s struggle is the black swan; seductive, confident — unconstrained. Her dance counterpart Lilly is everything she isn’t; free, sexual, alluring — the epitome of the black swan. From the start Lilly is a motivating force — Nina imagines Lilly coveting the role of the swan queen. Nina is determined to fight to become what she is not; confident, alluring to Thomas, and even violent.
Early in the film Nina attempts to make Thomas consider her for the part of the swan queen. Thomas responds to her, “The truth is when I look at you all I see is the white swan. Yes you’re beautiful, fearful, and fragile…In four years every time you dance I see you obsessed getting each and every move perfectly right but I never see you lose yourself. Ever! All that discipline for what?”
“I just want want to be perfect” she states softly.
Thomas responds— “Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go. Surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience. Transcendence! Very few have it in them.”
The parallel scene in Whiplash arises in Andrew's fist performance in studio band — with Fletcher throwing a chair at Andrew's head, slapping him over and over, violently, as Andrew reads tempo— “RUSHING OR DRAGGING.” A single tear rolls down Andrew’s face as Fletcher mocks him, “Start practicing harder.”
Both these scenes form in a certain sense the critical moment where Nina and Andrew are forced with similar yet diverging challenges. Let go of perfection, technicality into transcendence for Nina and for Andrew, practice harder, get more technical — become perfect. These two scenes set the dramatic arc for both protagonists; what will self transcendence cost? Two characters serve as warnings, Beth and Casey, students of Thomas and Fletcher, commit suicide as direct result of the high pressure dynamics of their relationships with their instructors. These warnings function to mirror the potential violence endemic to transcendence. The critical question is what does it take to transcend the self?
As Black Swan progresses Nina slowly becomes the black swan and leaves behind herself; biting Thomas’s lip seductively, experimenting sexually, and loosing her soft edge. Nina also literally begins to become black swan, with blood stained feathers coming from her back. The double she keeps seeing — quasi embodied by Lilly —reflects the person she needs to become — which makes Lilly’s presence all the more alarming. For Black Swan transcendence means the literally and metaphorical transformation of the self — with violent demands; near the end Nina literally stabs her double which ends up being herself, “IT’S MY TURN”, she screams with blood red eyes as she kills the “sweet girl” inside her. Nina returns to the stage, and gives the performance of her life; carefree, haunting, engrossing — black feathers bursting from her arms, loosing herself — she is the black swan.
In Whiplash, Andrew’s transformation is less overt but still laced with emotional and physical violence. Andrew's a decently polite guy at the start — but as Fletcher raises expectations and uses Ryan to propel Andrew's competitive spirit, Andrew increasingly sheds the version of himself willing to compromise. He practices relentlessly, bloodying his hands, and when he survives a car crash just to fail miserably at a competition, he attacks Fletcher on stage and gets expelled from Shaffer Academy.
Here’s where Whiplash and Black Swan diverge, in a certain sense Whiplash allows Andrew to breath and think about his trajectory. The warning of Casey's death hits Andrew and he’s given time to think about where his obsession is leading him. In Black Swan, the warning of Beth happens earlier in the film and goes unheeded — leading to Nina’s death. For Andrew, his final performance at Carnegie Hall comes from internal resolve, to play for himself. There’s a key moment where he hugs his dad before returning to stage to face off Fletcher and in a sense Andrew reconciles with his dad — there’a a tone of forgiveness. I understand. Instead of playing for Fletcher or to surpass his father, he plays to transcend his own limits. The ending scene speaks for itself, artistically and cinematically unhinged, technically perfect — with a smile from Fletcher to close.
Black Swan closes with Nina as the white swan, blood gushing from her side and a ending line, “I was perfect”.
Both Black Swan and Whiplash acknowledge the costs that come with attempting the extraordinary, both focus on violence, whether emotional or physical, as a condition for the journey, and both see individual metamorphosis as a necessary element to transcendence. However, Andrew takes the warning from Casey, reconciles with his father, and plays with internal cohesion; it’s not quite clear Andrew has had to remake himself as much as Nina, who literally leaves behind her old self to become the black swan. Black Swan says total transcendence requires total sacrifice, while Whiplash is more appealing and in a certain sense less extreme in its argument, maybe everything doesn't need to be sacrificed?
There’s mystery here —what it takes, how much it will cost, to become that something or someone you desire is riddled with potential violence towards the self. How much of the self will have to be excavated for the new? Black Swan and Whiplash don’t answer this question, they swim in these waters and posit stories that help us reflect upon the potential dynamics of any serious pursuit. For transcendence of the self, that mixture of uniqueness, awe, and meaning we seek, is always a mystery; complex, tragic — and so deeply human. What terrible and beautiful things we will do for it.