There is a moment, early on in “The Wrestler,” when Marisa Tomei interrupts the lap-dance she’s performing for Mickey Rourke’s eponymous damaged performer, to quote a line from “The Passion of the Christ.” The main thing which lingers in the memory from the said Biblical film, apart from its link to everyone’s favourite disgraced Hollywood star Mel Gibbons, is its gratuitous celebration of the horrific physical torments visited upon the body of Christ. Whereas he is suffering for a higher cause against his personal wishes, in the same way Marisa Tomei’s bodily performance as a stripper is to support her young son, Rourke’s wrestler is willingly subjecting himself to physical brutality as a performer of bodily violence. Rourke and Caviezel’s Christ are united in the way their directors make a point of indulging in the bodily horrors incurred by the performances of both the actors and the characters. What unites Rourke and Tomei’s characters is the necessity, whether financial or spiritual, to continue in their demanding and exacting physical performances well past their prime. Darren Aronofsky’s latest film “Black Swan,” a work the director considers a companion piece to The Wrestler, offers an interesting point of contrast to Randy “The Ram” in Natalie Portman’s ballerina Nina Sayers in Aronofsky’s consideration of the demands and costs of dedicated physical performance.
Attention to the physical is hardly a new concern in cinema history. Film has always been a visual medium, the term “motion picture” being an antiquated but technically sound description of the form. The human body has similarly been of central focus to dramatic communication in film: think only of the silent era in which the emotions and actions of characters were presented in purely physical terms, in the athleticism of the silent comedians and the facial expressions of silent screen actors such as Lillian Gish. Cinema’s fetish for physical performance and the exposure of the human body has permeated popular culture in various forms in film history, from Hitchcock’s eroticisation of the tall cool blonde to eighties action cinema’s celebration of the muscular masculine, from the rise of pornography in exploitation cinema to the horror genre’s increasing and continuing fascination with bodily mutilation. Aronofsky takes this obsession with the physical a step further in both “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan,” interrogating and altering our perceptions of how the human body is represented on screen. His findings would appear to highlight intriguing implications (sleazy Lynchian lesbian fantasies aside) of the presence of self-harm and masochism in the reasons for his two protagonists’ obsessive pursuit of perfection in their respective physical performances, driving their bodies to dangerous extremes.
That’s not to say that Aronofsky treats these two characters and their careers as meditations on the same notion: he is acutely aware that the wrestler and the ballerina occupy two different worlds and are at two very different stages of their life. Randy “The Ram” is all retrospection and faded glory, keeping a twenty year old action figure of himself on proud display on his car’s dashboard, playing an antique Nintendo game with a child much more accustomed to the “Call of Duty” franchise, and complaining about the cultural influence of Kurt Cobain as a dated eighties soundtrack introduces his various bouts. You’d expect his physical body to further manifest this deterioration, but it strangely doesn’t. Rourke as Randy is still a muscle-bound tower of power, his appearance referencing past wrestling archetypes with his spandex and long blonde hair, who can still pump iron with the best of them. The only physical scars are self-inflicted and part of his performance, yet the irony here is that the impressive bodily shell is empty, and Randy’s heart-attack is a prescient reminder of where the damage he’s inflicted upon himself can really be found. Nina Sayers is in many ways the antithesis of Randy: a professional in a high art form as opposed to a low art form, a specialist in grace and delicacy and beauty in contrast to the ugly violence and impression of physical destruction given in a wrestling match. Whilst “The Ram” is clinging to a faded ideal, Nina is in the process of achieving bodily perfection in the pursuit of sublime physical performance, and the rigorous regime she subjects her body to oozes desperate ambition rather than self-delusion. Yet, minor superficial scratches aside, the effect of this intense physical training is the same: the body achieves perfection in its look and performance, not manifesting the scars incurred to attain this, scars in fact internalised in Nina’s unhinged psychological delusions of starkly bestial body horror. Her external scars are projections of her inner demons in the same way Randy’s body is a shield from his own dark heart.
In both cases, though, the purely physical peak achieved by both characters is not filmed by Aronofsky in the exploitative way one normally expects. The film camera normally indulges in the muscle-bound flesh of the bodybuilder, in an almost homo-erotic subversion of the masculine gaze normally attributed to the camera’s perspective, but none of this is evident in the way Aronofsky films Rourke. The director again emphasises the damaged nature of his protagonist by sacrificing leering shots of bulging biceps and sweaty torsos in favour of emphasising the character’s pot belly and heart-bypass scar: all noticed by “The Ram” in tortured, prolonged looks into the mirror. The maintenance of his body is crucial to his performance, and the character’s vanity is clear when he partakes in drug-induced sex in front of a mirror. Similarly with Nina Sayers, it is only in the climactic ballet performance that her lithe figure, scantily-clad body and sensual, graceful movements are emphasised in the film’s photography to erotic effect. With the exception of the aforementioned fantasy in which she is fellated by Mila Kunis, and an earlier scene of masturbation, Natalie Portman’s ballerina is not shot by Aronofsky to emphasise her sexuality, and rightly so when one considers the frigidity and vulnerability of Nina. Instead the director aims his camera at Portman’s tortured face, at her cracked toe, and in the uncomfortable physical experiences she is subjected to, not least at the hands of the company’s physiotherapist. When we see Portman’s body in the film we startlingly feel pain and discomfort, not arousal, and this is especially evident when she is stripped down to her knickers by her mother: in spite of her nudity she looks frail, skeletal, and sexually unappealing.
This does, however, beg the question of why you’d cast Natalie Portman as a ballerina and strive to make her unattractive. Well, it’ll have something to do with the way Aronofsky makes a point of subverting the public images of his performers. This is the director who, in the same film, addicted the mother from “The Exorcist” to dieting drugs and transformed the girl from “Labyrinth” into a desperate prostitute. Would “The Wrestler” have anywhere near the same amount of poignancy and power if it hadn’t featured Mickey Rourke? Here’s an actor who fell spectacularly from the idol of his early career and, like Randy, is now battling the odds to revive his former glory. When we look into Rourke’s eyes, set in a face distorted by plastic surgery, we see an actual model for the years of pain his character has gone through. Similarly in casting Portman in Black Swan, Aronofsky is deliberately turning one of the most intelligent and sultry of modern actresses into an infantile and frigidly desexualised entity, her monomaniac pursuit of perfection in her physical performances removing all natural beauty from her unnatural ballerina’s body.
Both characters achieve their final blazes of glory, the refinement of their technically perfect bodies destroyed in spectacular feats of physical performance, but masochism has driven both to this self-destruction. Randy will hurl his body through glass windows and barbed wire, suffer the impacts of stapled skin and hard floors, not solely to relive his former splendour: the pain of his physical performances is an attempt to eradicate his emotional pain. The most hideous and prescient scar on his body is the huge heart-bypass scar running down his chest. Justly abandoned by the daughter he abandoned, Rourke turns to Marisa Tomei before his climactic fight and tells her that “out there I don’t get hurt.” He notices her flight from the stadium immediately before he takes his final plunge, and perhaps this virtual suicide is the epitome of his attempt to use physical pain to blunt his emotional destruction. Nina’s masochism is psychological rather than emotional. Her pursuit of physical perfection in her balletic performance is inextricably linked to her warped psychoses: unleashing the dark sexuality, the “black swan,” within her is only meant to balance her technique with impulse. Both sides of the performance go too far. Though her bestial metamorphosis is little more than a Freudian delusion, the demands she places upon her body’s performance lead to self-harm, first through grotesque scars and scratches picked up in her rehearsal regime, and later in the form of relentless back-scraping between her shoulder blades. The closer she gets to the perfect performance, the more her psychological demons consume Nina from within, and the closer to physical destruction she goes, culminating in her pseudo-sexual penetration upon a shard of glass.
The body may be beautiful, but if the inside’s rotten…