Summary of Discussion on Libel

Discussion on Libel included: its melodramatic elements in terms of its main narrative line of imposture, the villain/victim dynamic, coincidence, the courtroom setting and the rhythm of the plot which contains multiple flashbacks, especially emotional moments, and the film’s use of music; the matter of trauma caused by war and the attempted recovery of repressed memory; doubling in the source text and adaptations;  doubling in films; the doubling of Mark and Frank – both played by Dirk Bogarde; narcissism and homosexual desire; how the fact Bogarde plays both posh Mark and lower-class Frank related to his screen and star images; scandal magazines.

Our discussion began with comments on films which had similar narratives. The plot where a man commits, or is accused of committing, identity theft recalled The Captive Heart (1946, Basil Dearden). In this, Michael Redgrave starred as a Czechoslovakian prisoner of war posing as (Redgrave’s real-life wife) Rachel Kempson’s RAF husband through letters to her. We also spoke about the French film The Return of Martin Guerre (1982, France, Daniel Vigne), with Gerard Depardieu as the titular character and Nathalie Baye as Bertrande, his wife. Although this was based on a historical case from 16th century France, Hollywood later updated and relocated it to Civil War America in Somersby (1993, Jon Amiel) starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster.

In addition to Libel’s central melodramatic plot-line, which not only needs the audience to suspend its disbelief to some degree but also promises a revelation of the truth, we considered whether the film employed stock characters thought to be typical to melodrama. Because of the confusion over the main character’s identity, the matter was very blurred. This is well illustrated by a contemporary poster for the film which poses the question of whether Baronet Mark Loddon (Dirk Bogarde) is ‘Victim or Murderer?’ Furthermore, the next line, ‘not even his wife knew which’ points to Margaret Loddon (Olivia de Havilland) as the real victim if ‘Mark’ is in fact ‘Frank’ playing a role. The matter turns out to be even more nuanced when ‘Number 15’ (a severely injured man, and like Mark and Frank also played by Bogarde, and therefore either the ‘real’ Mark or the ‘real’ Frank) appears in court. Towards the end of the film the recovery of Mark’s previously repressed memory further complicates any view of him being wholly ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

The film’s many melodramatic twists on turns depended to a large extent on coincidences. The central one – that of two men who look nearly exactly alike (both are played by Dirk Bogarde, after all) apart from hair colour and the matter of a few missing fingers – being interned in the same prisoner of war camp – took a fair suspension of disbelief on the audience’s part. Some of the explanations for the physical changes which have occurred to the present-day (and possibly ‘fake’) Mark also stretched credence, especially since they made him resemble Frank. The turning of Mark’s hair from dark to silver (like Frank’s) could be explained by age and the trauma of war. (It was in any case helpful for distinguishing between the dark-haired Mark and the silver-haired Frank in the flashbacks.) However, the chance that Mark lost fingers during his escape which exactly matched Frank’s disability seemed slim.

Coincidence also led to the Canadian Jeffrey Buckenham (Paul Massie) seeing the live television broadcast of the present-day Mark showing Richard Dimbleby around his stately home. Buckenham states that he is only in the UK for a couple of days. His presence in a pub which happens to boast a television which is tuned into the correct channel at just the right time (especially since in the 1950s television programmes often aired just once) is, however, superseded by another coincidence. The other pub customers object to viewing the programme, and Buckenham persuades fellow customer Maisie (Millicent Martin), whom he has only just met, to let him view her television in her nearby flat. The choice of the TV medium almost seems to deliberately underline the unlikeliness of the situation. Buckenham could have been exposed to photographs of Mark in a newspaper or a newsreel, which would have relied less on the precise timing of Buckenham’s reception. Furthermore, it is in an incredible twist of fate that Buckenham is the only person to have known both Mark and Frank well – the three escaped the prisoner of war camp together.

More believable were aspects which weighed for the likelihood of the present-day Mark being an imposter.  Frank’s profession as a ‘provincial actor’, meaning that he could conceivably imitate Mark’s voice and gestures. The flashbacks show this convincingly since Buckenham remarks that he could ‘understudy’ the ‘star’ part of Mark Loddon. The prisoner of war scenes also reveal that Frank was present while Mark described some of his past, and his fiancée. Frank could therefore make use of such information.

We pondered the flashbacks a little more.  While some of these recounted the same events, such as the misdelivering of one of Mark’s letters to Frank, the details differed depending on who was giving evidence.  Buckenham’s included more of an emphasis on Frank’s violence. They are not necessarily contradictory, however, unlike the lying flashback in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright (1950) for example). In this film they add further nuance, and indeed more evidence for Buckenham’s claims Mark is an imposter.

We also discussed how coincidence played a part in action which occurred prior to the film. The fact that Mark was engaged, but not yet married, was significant. It meant that the chance of an imposter being able to fool his family, and specifically his fiancée, was more likely. This was aided by the present-day Mark’s amnesia which helpfully provides an excuse for why he cannot remember certain details of what happened before the war.

Two important courtroom revelations also relied on coincidence. A physically and, more importantly, severely mentally damaged man – known only as Number 15 – is produced in the court by the defence team. Recognisably played by Bogarde, this means that somehow Frank (or Mark!) survived the injuries sustained abroad and has at last been identified. The final coincidence which in fact clinches the fact of Mark’s innocence also occurs in the court room. He has finally remembered the medallion charm his fiancée gave to him, and more significantly recalls that it is hidden in the coat Number 15 was found wearing. Conveniently this coat has been kept, and indeed is present in court.

The fact that much of the film’s action, and the framing of flashbacks, take place in court, is significant. In this formal setting, elderly, privileged, white men in traditional robes follow procedures which have been established for centuries. Its staid atmosphere contrasts to the action in the flashbacks and the intensity of the revelations which are divulged, providing a rhythm of lows and highs. Even the brilliant British actors Robert Morley, Wilfrid Hyde-White and Richard Wattis, who are not exactly underplaying their roles as legal stalwarts, seem surprised by the level of revelation.  This was also reflected by the audible gasps of those in the public gallery, which were in turn echoed by members of the melodrama research group!

We also paid attention to moments when characters displayed extreme emotion. Mark’s struggling with his memory, and his being seemingly haunted by his own reflection, led to outbursts both at home and in court. His wife is more emotionally stable, providing Mark with solid support. But after she has denounced him in court as a fraud, the enormity of his presumed deception distresses her and she verbally attacks Mark. Following this, she leans against the hotel door, exhausted, and calls out his name.

Much of this emotion is underscored by the film’s music. We especially noted the use of a particular refrain – the whistling of the English folk song ‘Early One Morning’ – in the narrative. As well as further suggesting that Mark is an imposter (we see Frank whistling the tune in the flashbacks and it is part of what makes Buckenham suspicious of him) the lyrics of the chorus seem to reinforce Mark’s wife’s view that she has been lied to:

Oh, don’t deceive me,
Oh, never leave me,
How could you use
A poor maiden so?

The theme of deception works on several levels in the film, including that of self-deception. Mark claims to have lost his memory due to the trauma of war. While some in the film think that this is a convenient way for Frank to explain any gaps in his knowledge of a life he has after all not lived, it turns out to in fact be the case. He is in fact the real Mark, though is unaware of who he is for most of the film. A flashback reveals the memory Mark has repressed. He is shown to viciously attack Frank after Frank decided to put Buckenham’s suggestion of taking over the ‘star’ part into practice. This explains his distress when seeing his own reflection in a mirror – it is a reminder of the man with his face who turned against him. It is also significantly suggestive of a fear of himself. Though Mark acts in self-defence, his sustained attack is unjustifiable. The effects of his actions are seen as Number 15 shuffles into court, physically but even more overwhelmingly mentally and emotionally damaged. This speaks to a more universal fear of what the self is capable of.

The recovery of repressed memory reminded us of when the melodrama research group screened The Awakening (2011, Nick Murphy). The Awakening is especially tied to time and place as the film’s protagonist, Florence (Rebecca Hall), unknowingly returns to her childhood home after the first world war in order for her to remember her past. (You can see a summary of the group’s  previous discussion here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2014/03/01/summary-of-discussion-on-the-awakening/).

A film which had more direct comparisons to Libel, and indeed was released more than a decade previously, is Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945). Like Mark, the character Gregory Peck plays – Dr Anthony Edwardes – is thought to be an imposter. He is suspected by Dr Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman), who nonetheless does not believe his admission that he has killed the real Dr Edwardes. While in fact he is not who he claims to be, Peck’s character, like Mark, is suffering from amnesia.  Because of the profession Dr Petersen and Dr Edwardes share (they are psychoanalysts) this aspect is especially well-worked through. It is explained that he is suffering from a guilt complex. He was present there when the real Dr Edwardes accidentally fell to his death, which recalled a childhood accident in which his brother died.

We also especially focused on the relation of the doubling not just to the self, and to psychology, but to the medium of film. In relation to this, it is worth contemplating the original source text and other adaptations. Edward Wooll’s play, on which the film was based, was first staged in 1934. The 1930-1939 volume of J.P. Wearing’s incredibly helpful The London Stage: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel (1990) contains the cast list and this suggests that the character of Frank does not appear in the original production. This is unsurprising, since the doubling would be extremely difficult to achieve on stage. It is however, possible that it took place in the novelised version Wooll wrote in 1935.

Several radio and television versions were made between 1934 and the 1970s. According to my research on the internet movie database (https://www.imdb.com/) and the BBC’s excellent genome project (https://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/), which gives access to all the BBC’s radio and TV listings from 1923 to 2009, these productions also do not include Frank. Doubling would have been possible on radio, but certainly more impactful on screen. The fact that much TV of the time was shown live or ‘as live’ making manipulation of the image difficult, or indeed consisted of excerpts of stage plays, perhaps partially explains why the doubling remains a peculiarly cinematic phenomenon.

Such a view is supported when we consider that other instances of doubling are especially linked to film. We’ve viewed and discussed some examples in the melodrama research group. In addition to instances of doubling which are related to the split self (The Student of Prague (1913, Stella Rye), Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky), The Double (2013, Richard Ayoade)) we’ve also seen stars playing dual roles: Mary Pickford in Stella Maris (1918, Marshall Neilan) and Norma Shearer in Lady of the Night (1925, Monta Bell). You can also see summaries of our discussion on Olivia de Havilland playing twins in The Dark Mirror (1946, Robert Siodmak) here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2015/01/31/summary-of-discussion-on-the-dark-mirror/. Jeremy Irons also undertook such a feat in Dead Ringers (1988, David Cronenberg), a summary of our discussion appearing here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2015/03/26/summary-of-discussion-on-dead-ringers/.

Not only is the film audience afforded the opportunity of seeing both Mark and Frank, importantly these characters are able to see one another. There was an undercurrent of narcissism present in the relationship between the two men.  Frank admired Mark so much as his ego ideal (the self he wanted to be) that he tried to take Mark’s life – both literally and figuratively. In addition, there was the suggestion of homosexual desire. Buckenham’s defending counsel, Hubert Foxley (Hyde-White) states that Mark has kept many things from his wife. While ostensibly this refers to the accusation that Mark has stolen another man’s identity, we might also consider that this refers to other parts of his private life. Such a reading seems especially indicated by the tone of Foxley’s probing. He asks what happened between the two men when they were left alone on one occasion at the prisoner of war camp, repeating ‘and then….?’ in such a way as to imply that more has occurred.

We can connect such readings more closely to the fact that Mark and Frank were played by Bogarde. Our view of a star’s screen image is of course informed by the other roles he or she plays, including in terms of character and class, as well as any knowledge we have of a star’s ‘real’ self (star image). We noted how in Esther Waters Bogarde played a gambler of the lower classes, and while he is the cause of the heroine’s downfall his character is nuanced. Bogarde’s ability to play two extremes was seen to even greater effect in Hunted as a murderer on the run who nonetheless cares for a neglected little boy.  In the seven years between Hunted and Libel, Bogarde appeared in a variety of films, and began to be listed by the trade magazine Motion Picture Herald as a draw at the British box office.

Soon after Hunted, Bogarde played another man-on-the-run, though this time an innocent one, in Desperate Moment (1953, Compton Bennett). Other roles saw Bogarde breaking the law. In The Gentle Gunman (1952, Basil Dearden) he was a member of the IRA and in The Sleeping Tiger (1954, Joseph Losey) a man who hold a psychiatrist at gunpoint. In Cast a Dark Shadow (1955, Lewis Gilbert) Bogarde’s repulsive wife-killer is specifically coded as a member of the lower classes (despite having married into wealth). Similarly, the feckless and petty thief he portrays in Anthony Asquith’s 1958 adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play The Doctor’s Dilemma is poor. Bogarde also played non-criminal types, in both light comedies (most notably in 3 of the Doctor series of films– 1954, 1955 and 1957 – and action or adventure narratives like Campbell’s Kingdom (1957), all directed by Ralph Thomas. Thomas was also at the helm when Bogarde starred as Sydney Carton in an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities and in the war picture The Wind Cannot Read (both 1958). Like other stars of the time, Bogarde appeared in several war films in the 1950s, beginning with Appointment in London (Philip Leacock) in 1953. In these films Bogarde mostly played members of the middle or the upper classes. His status as a star at the British box office at this time was impressive, 5th in both 1953 and 1959, and in between rose higher: 2nd (1954), 1st (1955), 3rd (1956), 1st (1957) and 2nd (1958).

Bogarde’s appearance as Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities is particularly worth singling out in comparison to Libel. The narrative turns on the uncanny physical similarity between drunken English lawyer Carton and French aristocrat Charles Darnay. Carton famously nobly sacrifices his own life for Darnay’s, substituting himself for the Frenchman at the guillotine.  While Bogarde does not play both parts in the film (Paul Guers is Darnay), this has occasionally been the case. William Farnum starred in both roles in Frank Lloyd’s 1917 silent film and Desmond Llewelyn in a 1952 television adaptation.  The two 1980 TV versions also used this device – Paul Shelley appearing as Carton and Darnay in the mini-series and Charles Sarandon doing so in the TV movie.  Libel therefore addresses the matter of the double more directly. It also problematizes the matter due to the fact neither the audience, nor Mark, is sure of Mark’s identity.

Libel also adds aspects which connect more specifically to Bogarde’s star image. John Style’s chapter “Dirk Bogarde’s Sidney Carton—More Faithful to the Character than Dickens Himself?” (from Books in Motion, Adaptation, Intertextuality, Authorship (2005)), wrote about Bogarde’s theatricality in this film in relation to camp. Libel’s references to camp are more overt. Frank is after all, an actor, and excuses his impersonation of Mark by claiming that he is practicing for the ‘camp’ concert. Many films set in prisoner of war camps show its inmates spending what might seem like an inordinate amount of time on such entertainments, including quite often female impersonation; for us though, the use of the word ‘camp’ had an obvious double meaning.

Frank has less depth than the character of Mark – Mark is after all not sure who he is – but the relation to Bogarde’s real life is intriguing. Bogarde too started as a provincial actor (in repertory at Amersham – see one of my posts on the NORMMA blog: http://www.normmanetwork.com/pre-search-dirk-bogardes-life-and-career/). It is also important to consider our reading of Libel in relation to revelations made after his death about his private life. The reading of some of the aspects in Libel as elating to homosexuality is also strengthened by Bogarde’s later screen image – especially his appearance as a gay man in Victim (1961, Basil Dearden).

We concluded our discussion by pondering the film’s own raising of the matter of scandal – it is for this reason that Mark launches the libel action against a ‘sensationalist’ newspaper. While this type of publication is distinct from the celebrity scandal magazines which especially proliferated in the 1950s, we spoke about the tricky line stars sometimes had to negotiate. Stars relied on print to sustain the public’s interest in them, but also had to be careful in case revelations about their private lives harmed their careers. We commented that in Libel the scandal was connected to class. Class runs through the film. We are introduced to Mark, by Richard Dimbleby, as a Baronet with a long family history, and a palatial stately home (in fact Longleat House). It is because of his family name that he is a prominent person – one readers may be interested to learn more about.

We also spoke about how the film commented on publicity as a particularly American phenomenon.  Although she claims she only wants to protect their son’s future, his wife is criticised by those attending the local church for the fact the libel action goes ahead – it is said that Americans love publicity. Significantly, Mark’s American wife is played by the American star de Havilland. British fan magazine Picturegoer noted that Libel continued Bogarde’s run of American sponsored films which would also be shown in the United States (29th August 1959). These included the already-made The Doctor’s Dilemma, and the upcoming The Franz Liszt Story – later renamed Song Without End (1960, Charles Vidor; George Cukor).

It was also remarked upon that it is somewhat ironic that de Havilland recently launched an unsuccessful libel action against the makers of the 2017 mini-series Feud. The TV production, about the relationship between Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange), includes a characterisation of de Havilland (Davis’ co star and friend) by Catherine Zeta-Jones. De Havilland criticised the series for claiming she was a gossip and for its less than flattering depiction of her own relationship with her sister, fellow film star Joan Fontaine.  This shows the importance of the matter of personal reputation to stars, as well as the mingling of screen and star images.

 

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk and let me know you’d like me to add your thoughts to the blog.

Tamsin Flower’s TRANSFORMER

We were very pleased to recently welcome back writer/director Tamsin Flower, about 6 weeks after her last visit. It was great to read the first draft of her play TRANSFORMER in full, after the excerpts we were treated to last time. This was especially useful due to the play’s complex and thought-provoking structure. The play’s main characters, overbearing mother Norma and the far less sure of herself and still-developing Eddie, each has a different relationship to the films referenced.

We particularly commented on the impactful nature of the first two scenes. In the first, Eddie’s tangle with an impresario comments on Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky) with her success in winning the dual role in Swan Lake prompting Norma to celebrate and reminisce about her own related experience. This second scene also involves an impresario, though Norma is far more knowing, and pushy, than the heroine she references: that of the young female ballet dancer Vicky (Moira Shearer) in The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger). The fact that the both the obsessive female dancer and the figure of the impresario are archetypes – as demonstrated by the act The Red Shoes is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s disturbing fairy tale (1845) – aids the audience’s recognition of both figures even if they are unfamiliar with the films. But the play delves far deeper than this as Norma and Eddie’s relationship to these related but diverging film texts, and of course to each other, are multi-layered.

While both The Red Shoes and Black Swan focus on a woman’s love/hate relationship with dancing and the control it exerts on her, these women and the contexts of the films are very different. In The Red Shoes the ballerina literally cannot escape her compulsion, dancing up until almost her last moment when she jumps in front of a moving train. In Andersen’s story this a punishment for the pleasure she takes in her beautiful new red slippers she insists on wearing to church, with her only stopping once her slipper-encased feet have gruesomely been chopped off. The more modern Black Swan couches Nina Sayers’ (Natalie Portman) breakdown as the pressure between the oppositional good and bad characters she plays on stage, with the moral judgment of women seen in Andersen’s fairy tale replaced by recognition of the pressures women are under.

(For more on Black Swan see this earlier blog post: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2014/03/08/summary-of-discussion-on-black-swan/).

Norma and Eddie’s relationship is commented on by the tension existing between both characters and the film texts they are connected to. This is seen as despite the fact Norma, as befitting her age, is linked to The Red Shoes, and Eddie to Black Swan, it is in fact the older Norma who pushes boundaries. In her retelling of her meeting with an impresario, asides convey her calculated behaviour. This is similarly demonstrated as she is present in part of Eddie’s first scene, taking over to tell her story and also commenting on the complex mother/daughter relationship present in Black Swan.

While Norma changes little, Eddie develops, after a crisis of identity leads to a period of estrangement and meaning that Eddie following her own path. Here the recognisable film tropes of women empowering themselves through education (Erin Brockovich, 2000, Steven Soderbergh) and of films’ makeover scenes (Clueless, 1995, Amy Heckerling) shine a light on the way audiences in general respond to stars, including as an ego ideal inspiring self-development. Norma is also ‘made-over’ (references to the classic Now Voyager, 1942, Irving Rapper) but her empowerment comes through her manipulation of men (The Damned Don’t Cry, 1950, Vincent Sherman). Even for modern day theatre audiences who might not be familiar with these specific (though widely available and mostly Hollywood) film texts, the fact they reference themes disseminated in films and indeed these themselves reflect their presence in other art forms/discourses of entertainment widens their appeal, reach and relevance.  The script sets up the matter of how specific (though imaginary) audience members might appropriate material from well-known films with female stars whose characters undergo some sort of transformation. Furthermore, as film academics, many of us historians, this bridges the gap between historical audiences who can seem difficult to grasp, offering some insights into how texts are read, re-read and re-purposed including as part of people’ life narratives.

A particularly enjoyable and fruitful discussion revolved around the matter of pre-code films. This too relates to the matter of historically situated audiences as many today would be unaware that some films before the implementation of this heavier censorship in Hollywood (the Production or Hays Code in 1934) actually referenced matters like prostitution, child abuse and other weighty issues. We specifically discussed the pre-code Baby Face (1933, Alfred E. Green) – a film credited as partly responsible for more censorship being necessary. In this, Lily (Barbara Stanwyck) is a young woman who after years of abuse, including being prostituted by her own father, is encouraged (ironically enough by a man) to use men the way men have always used her – to employ sex for her own ends. Although Lily is in some ways ‘normalised’ – although she cold-heartedly climbs the ladder of executives at the company she is employed by she eventually marries her boss and realising her love for him she later sacrifices her hard-won jewellery – she still gains through using her sexual powers, although she may of course be given special justification due to the awful abuse she has suffered.

We contrasted this to The Damned Don’t Cry which is referenced in the play as Norma regales Eddie, and us, with how she used men to further her own financial standing. The Damned Don’t Cry is a somewhat uneven film, veering from severe sympathy for Edith Whitehead/Lorna Hansen Forbes (Joan Crawford) after the loss of her child and perhaps some delight in her turning the tables on men, though she does not have such a damaged background as Lily in Baby Face. Furthermore in the post-code and more conservative early 1950s Ethel/Lorna is punished by the killing of the man she loves by the one she has betrayed.

We also commented on the variety of genres referenced – Norma’s melodrama to Eddie’s drama, adaptation, romantic comedy, and horror. This too makes it more recognisable to various audiences and widens the appeal of the piece. In addition, we thought that the humour derived from Norma’s high campery (itself also chiming well with some of the film heroines she references) provided lighter and enjoyable moments.

We look forward to seeing the next draft of Tamsin’s script (thanks so much for sharing, Tamsin!) and to seeing it staged.

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk to add your thoughts.

Summary of Discussion on Black Swan

Posted by Sarah

Ann-Marie has very kindly provided the following:

We had a varied and detailed discussion about Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010). Please find our discussion under theme/subject:

 

Motherhood

Black Swan mother and childEach member found the relationship between mother and daughter disturbing. Firstly, we were unsure whether the mother was a villain or whether we see her through Nina’s interpretation. The film is not always explicit in its depiction of reality (part of its power) but this also leaves for questionable gaps in its reading. A question was raised if ​we should cast blame on the mother? It seems like a “chicken and egg” scenario and is open to either interpretation. Option A: Mother is to blame, showing the danger of the matriarch. Option B: Nina’s illness has caused an over-protective mother, showing the responsibility placed on the role of matriarch.

The mother’s lack of career did not escape us, particularly because she was supposedly destined to the life that Nina has gained.  Two things are suggested here: the mother as self-sacrificing (she gave up her career to have Nina) for the advancement of future women. Or, the continuous replacement of younger women in the entertainment industry. Nina informs us that her mother was already 28, thus past her expiry date. The mother viewed in this sense is a tragic character because she lacks a career, (because of age and children) and is also losing her daughter to the strain of an industry, one that she is acutely aware of.

Another odd occurrence: the moment of Nina’s first sexual experience. Did she imagine her mother in the room during masturbation, or was the mother by her bedside?  If the first interpretation is correct then what does this mean? One option could be part of a guilt complex, but should we be more psychoanalytic?

Yet another confusing mother moment occurs when Nina’s mother attempts to throw away the celebration cake. What are we to make of this over-blown reaction? It was noted that Nina is a ballerina and thus most likely on a strict diet so cake would be out-of-bounds, and Nina suggests this very idea to her mother.

Let’s break this down:

  • ​​Mother buys a giant cake, but knows Nina will not be able to eat much of it. Is the mother masochistic?
  • ​​Nina refuses, as we would expect, so the mother attempts to throw the cake away.
  • ​​Nina pleads her to stop, agreeing to eat the cake. The mother is victorious, firmly establishing the power boundaries.

In this scene we can see a guilt complex working in favour of the mother, and if we then connect this to the masturbation scene we could surmise: the mother keeps her in a virginal room made for a young girl, complete with the habitual tucking into bed and brushing of the hair. Nina moves away from the mother’s “ideal” (good little girl) and is struck by an imaginative view of her mother, caused by an inherent guilt complex. These are merely speculations, but what is important to note is how the power boundaries change and evolve. 

 Female performers/ All About Eve syndrome 

Black Swan fragmentA possible fear that is shown through Nina’s character is the dissolution of self. Nina’s submersion into the two roles that she plays begs the question: is a personality lost when one becomes a performer, and if one can lose the self in a part then what is the self, is it something we continually construct? If this Is the case it is no wonder that Nina would fear others, but more importantly the particular danger of other performers. Alternately, we could also consider Nina (or indeed any performer) as an example of the role picked for us and the person we are. 

The performer is presented to us as a fragmented person (Nina, Erica, Beth). The best example of this can be found in:

  • ​​Nina – Throughout, often by the use of shots, particularly as she dances. Nina is also is often viewed through another object, such as the window on the subway.
  • ​Beth – First caught in a glimpse through a door, and later becomes both Nina and Beth in the process of self-mutilation.
  • ​Erica (the mother) – her drawings are sharp and disjointed, representing an element of her psyche.
  • ​The obscured view of Nina during the dance sequence in the club could also be noted as the completion of this fragmented self because it is from this that she accepts her duality.

We also noted similar connections to this film and The Red Shoes (Powell and Pressburger, UK, 1948). The film shows a performer that lives her role to such an extent that it becomes her literal destruction.

 The uncanny and the double 

Black Swan mirrorThe use of the double was the reason for the initial interest in the film. In many melodramas we have seen the clear distinctions between good and bad (The Wicked Lady, Leslie Arliss, UK, 1945) and the nature of disguise/hiding true self (Gaslight, Thorold Dickinson, UK, 1940 and George Cukor, US, 1945). Black Swan is no exception, in fact, its use of double and its cause for female stress is explicit. Here are just some of the ways the film shows us that the duality of self is at its core:​

  • ​​Half man/ half bird statue
  • ​The use of black and white throughout the film, particularly in décor. Note: the shift between pink/pastel sheets to white and black on Nina’s bed. 
  • ​Costume, particularly Nina’s in contrast to Lily.
  • ​The plot mimics the ballet.
  • ​Use of mirrors and reflections, we view Nina/ Nina’s double/and see other characters.
  • ​Nina replaces a random woman, Beth, Lily, and she also appears in places we least expect, such as the bathtub.
  • Shadow manifestation at the end of the Black Swan’s sequence. Note: there are two shadows.
  • The performance styles, particularly the sexual prowess and make-up of the Black Swan in contrast with the pastel colours and timid, girl-like performance of Nina.

These are just a few examples, but the message is clear: duality is inherent, and it’s everywhere. Interestingly, the duality causes fear and paranoia at first and then destruction by its acceptance.

Sexuality and gender roles

Black Swan Nina and ThomasPurity is seen as a form of weakness. Thomas tells Nina at various intervals to stop being weak and that she seems too reserved, thus, has an inability to lose herself in a good performance. Perhaps most fascinating is Thomas’ mention of Beth. He tells Nina that it is the dark impulses of Beth that makes her perfect, albeit destructive. It seems that the film suggests that a woman finds perfection in accepting her inherent dichotomy. Often the stereotyped woman is the virgin or the whore, and this film challenges those preconceptions as well as challenging the idea of a defined sexuality. Nina experiments with men and has fantasises about women, thus showing the possibility of both a fluid Black Swan Nina and Lilysexuality as well as a rejection of gender roles. However, the “perfection” that Nina feels she achieves by the end of her performance suggests that it is still not possible for a woman to reach the “ideal fluidity,” instead these women will be destroyed by the pressures put upon them.

Another comment in regards to women and sexuality was the intriguing fact that women fear each other.  This fear seems to derive from the opposing woman’s bodily power. The fear results in jealousy and paranoia, reminding the group  of hysteria as a woman’s problem. Note that Thomas finds the notion of another woman trying to steal Nina’s part as ridiculous and he is almost unaware of the pain and stress caused by the decline of Beth’s career.

 Please comment further to continue the discussion on this interesting film.

 You can log in to do so, or email me on  sp458@kent.ac.uk

Many thanks to Ann-Marie for choosing such a  thought-provoking film, providing an interesting introduction and the above excellent summary of our discussion.

Melodrama Screening and Discussion, 5th of March, Keynes Seminar Room 6, 4-7pm

Posted by Sarah

All are welcome to attend the fifth of this term’s screening and discussion sessions which will take place on the 5th of March in Keynes Seminar Room 6, from 4pm to 7pm.

We will be screening Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky, 108 mins).

Black Swan

Ann-Marie has very kindly provided the following introduction:

The film is said to be inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s 1846 novel The Double. In the book a man goes mad when he encounters his double, and, like Black Swan, the double in Dostoyevsky’s novel is the polar opposite of the original self.

The film revolves around Tchaikovsky’s brilliant ballet, Swan Lake. Natalie Portman plays both the White and the Black Swan. Her performance, (for which she won a Best Actress Oscar) focuses on the slow spiral into madness caused by an over-protective mother, the intense pressure of her work, confusion of her sexual orientation, and perhaps, the acknowledgment of the short-lived career of her predecessor (Winona Ryder). In fact, it is not hard to see the All About Eve (1950) links throughout the film, particularly if we consider the fear and paranoia of the younger/prettier/talented performers. Show business has a shelf-life, something the women in this film are more than acutely aware of.

The film was chosen for multiple reasons, but none more so than the idea of the doppelganger. The doppelganger is the paranormal double of a living person. The doppelganger is seen to be sinister and bad luck, often regarded as an omen of death. Perhaps most fascinating about the use of the double in this film is the idea of identity, both hidden and the eventual loss of it, and it is this that could be further expanded in our meeting.

 Potential discussion points:

The use of music, particularly in reference to Portman’s character, Nina.

Hidden identity and its connection to melodrama.

The extension of a fictional self and/or the dissolution of self.

The double in terms of polar opposites and its importance to narratives as a whole, but particularly melodrama.

Lastly, dance and movement as an expression of character. This brings to mind the sweeping cape of the Victorian melodramas. Plainly, what type of movement do we identify with a type of character? How does this alter our perception and add to the melodramatic mode? Are the villains prone to excessive movement, and how do we interpret that in our culture?

Do join us if you can.

A link to Dostoyevsky’s novella: http://fiction.eserver.org/novels/the_double.html