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A Transformation

It’s been a tough few months for me. This season has seen me question so many of the more cerebral questions I’ve always pushed to the back of my mind. What’s the point of what I’m doing? Who am I becoming? Where will all this effort take me?

Usually, films are my therapy. An escape to avoid thinking about that demoralizing stuff for a few hours. But lately, I’ve been leaning into that feeling, those questions, seeking out films with psychoanalytic energy. I’ve been watching women grapple with similar whims, watching them wrestle with that other within them. I’ll briefly wonder how much of what I’m seeing is real, and then I’ll realize it doesn’t matter, because if it’s in your mind it feels real enough.

This week, I’m exploring films where a woman transforms. Whether it be a tough-as-nails girlie rising above the sludge of real life, or a woman who turns herself into a monster. The following films represent transcendence in some way, but either way is inspiring.

Black Swan (2010)

I’ve spent so much of my time lately searching for diverse iterations of the films I love the most — so much time, in fact, that it’s made me a bit intolerant to films with white leads. All that aside, it does not take me much effort to remember how much I love Black Swan. This is definitely one of the films that changed me, and it’s definitely on that relatively short list of films I wish I had been the one to make. It’s a bit bonkers that Darren Aronofsky can time and again articulate what it is to be a woman, and how close we as women often are to a psychotic break. Like… a male director? With empathy? I still don’t believe it.

For anyone who still… (glare) hasn’t mustered up the courage to see Black Swan, it is essentially about a girl. A good girl. A girl dressed in white who lives in a pink room in an apartment with her mother. Her name is Nina, and she dances with a ballet company for a living. This is not (entirely) why she lives with her mother. She also lives in New York City, where rent is in no way cheap, but I think her living with her mother has more to do with their obsessive/protective relationship. Mother wants the best things for her, she wants to keep her healthy and perfect and unspoiled, and as a result Nina’s maturity has been entirely stunted.

This doesn’t become a problem until her company’s prima ballerina (Winona Ryder!) falls out with the theatre’s director, played to disgusting perfection by Vincent Cassell. Mr. Director announces that the new season will open with Swan Lake, and that he’s on the hunt for a dancer who can portray the innocence of the white swan as well as the insatiable hunger of the black. Nina wants the role in the way we all wanted a gold star on our report card in the fifth grade. It’s the obligatory step she must take to achieve whatever empty goal lies at the end of her 10-year-plan, because it’s what her mom has told her she wants. It’s something drilled in so deep that it’s lost any sort of meaning, but she wants it desperately anyway.

Art by Lyvie Scott

Mr. Director sees this desperation, and he knows he can push it in a way, twist it into what he really wants to see onstage. He wants to turn Nina into a wraith, to give purpose to all her repressed urges. He seduces her, and in doing so he opens the floodgates — but he does not realize that Nina is essentially incapable of closing them herself. She has not learned to turn it on and off with the dexterity that he can, to use that darkness for art and put it away when the curtains close.

These urges completely take over her life, and begin to manifest as her own black swan, and it’s just so delicious to watch Natalie Portman go crazy, to sob at her changing room mirror after she thinks she’s killed someone only to smile and go about reapplying her makeup, that if you seriously haven’t seen it yet I’m going to revoke your movie-watching badge. I have the authority to do so. Go and watch it right now.

Spencer (2021)

For most of my life, there was not a lot I knew about Princess Diana, except that my mom loved her with a fervor that I had scarcely seen before. I became convinced, like many daughters of West Indian moms, that if I and Diana Spencer were both in some kind of perilous damsel-in-distress situation, that my mom would hesitate for a second before saving me.

I only kind of understood this mania as I got older: Diana was the People’s Princess, but also the people’s friend, confidant, sister, child, sometimes all at once — and a kind of paladin for people colonized by the English monarchy to live vicariously through. Diana spent 10 long years tortured by the royal family, and in a way was colonized herself, condemned for the very things that Charles and his dear mummy were at first so smitten with. I started to get it a bit more as I watched Emma Corrin portray Diana in The Crown (but the series wasn’t too sympathetic to her, was it?). But then, I saw Spencer. And I now, in fact, get it completely.

One of the common criticisms I always used to see about Kristen Stewart was that she would always act like she was “in pain.” That never bothered me. I always liked that about her performances. It put me on the edge of my seat; it excited me. But I did know what people meant when they said it, and I know that perpetual discomfort is perfectly embodied in her incarnation of Diana.

Art by Lyvie Scott

Diana is not well when she drives up to Sandringham House on Christmas Eve. Her unwellness is only exacerbated by her being there, and it’s as if the house and all inhabiting it are pressing down on her, suffocating her, to the point where her eyes are brimming with perpetual tears by the end of every interaction. Her marriage to Prince Charles is crumbling before her eyes, but at this point she’s pretty much over it, content to draw parallels between herself and Anne Boleyn, with whom she’s apparently distantly related. It’s a morbid, heavy-handed bit of storytelling, especially considering Anne B’s eventual fate — but Diana doesn’t seem afraid to die. She seems ready and willing to welcome it, ready for the royal fam to do away with her.

That’s how she feels at the beginning of Spencer. That’s how she feels, essentially, before she realizes that she can go another way. That she doesn’t have to be trapped. She doesn’t have to be their victim. She can choose to live, and that’s a hard choice for anyone living with mental illness, but it’s one the real Diana did make. It’s a journey that the film goes to great lengths to theorize over. She may not have decided to change her life, to separate herself from Charles and the insufferable Monarchy Industrial Complex, that very Christmas. None of us will really know what happened at Sandringham in 1992, or when Diana actually made such a crucial, life-altering decision. And in a way, it doesn’t matter. All we need to know is that Diana made it out.

Persona (1966)

Riz Ahmed, a man I am obsessed with, often talks about code switching, as well as the masks we put on and pull off interchangeably in our daily lives. I eat up everything he says whether I understand or not, but I realize now that the whole concept of masks, of having different versions of yourself, is essentially what it is to have a persona. I don’t think I had ever heard the term “persona” used in this context until BTS (don’t laugh) built an entire conceptual album around the idea of it. I think it was something more unspoken — at least for me, someone who hardly bothers with any in-depth psychic exploration at the risk of inviting another existential crisis to the fore.

At this very moment, the persona Wikipedia page is open in another window. It’s been open since I watched the film Persona earlier this evening, but I didn’t acquaint myself with the actual definition until after I’d watched the film. I didn’t feel like I needed to know, really. I felt like I got everything — well, almost everything — that Ingmar Bergman was trying to say with his kooky little film.

Bergman, as I understand him, is one of the great-grandfathers of modern cinema. He’s your favorite director’s favorite director’s favorite director, one that, it seemed, ran so those who came after could jog at a moderate pace. His work has inspired countless other works, and most of it is so deep and impenetrable that I won’t even dare to really critique the one film of his that I’ve watched. I’m glad I’ve seen the tropes of Persona embodied in more recent films before discovering the one that might have started it all. I think if I had seen Persona before watching something like Black Swan or Passing, I might have exploded.

It’s such a potent, concentrated film. It unfolds much like a play does, with a whole lot of dialogue and not a lot else, but I don’t think I felt the impulse to grab at my phone and check my messages once. I doubt there would have been any messages, but you get what I’m saying. I was so engrossed in the transformation of Alma, a young nurse charged with looking after an actress who has inexplicably gone mute. No one understands why Elisabeth has chosen to check out of society, except maybe Alma’s boss, a doctor with whom Elisabeth shares one of the most charged scenes in the film.

Because Elisabeth never talks, it turns her into a sort of sounding board for those around her to unload all their deepest thoughts to her. The film focuses more on how this plays out with Alma, when the nurse takes Elisabeth to a house by the beach in an effort to rehabilitate her. But the “conversation” she has with The Doctor, a conversation that occurs shortly before she leaves for the beach, informs everything that comes after.

“You think I don't understand?” the doctor asks. “The hopeless dream of being. Not seeming to be, but being. The constant hunger to be unmasked once and for all. To be seen through, cut down, perhaps even annihilated.”

Art by Lyvie Scott

Yeah, she gets it. She gets things that I have never heard articulated anywhere except the inside of my own head. The exhaustion of existing. The anxiety of being perceived. I’ve heard the latter so many times, but I’ve never seen anyone just decide to unsubscribe from the performance. To just be nothing in an effort to avoid the task of being everything. Elisabeth doesn’t want to die, per se. She doesn’t want to end her life. She just wants to pause it, probably. Let someone else drive for a bit.

And someone else does, in a way. The entire film is about Elisabeth’s persona, and how her nurse Alma ends up somehow adopting it in their time together. She becomes her. She does the living for her. That is, until she’s had enough and begins to project Elisabeth’s more baser qualities right back onto her.

The doctor compares Elisabeth’s muteness to a role, one she is sure Elisabeth will drop once she gets tired of it. But I don’t think she will. The idea of checking out from society is altogether too tantalizing. It’s the power move, really. It makes others, people still concerned with how they are presented and perceived, work overtime to get some power back. It’s got everyone throwing words at Elisabeth, bargaining, swearing, crying, just to get something. Some validation, some acknowledgment, and I couldn’t tell you if that’s what Elisabeth really wants, because I’m not sure Bergman wants us to think about that. I think he’s just presenting us, the audience, with a scenario. An option, even. One I’m sure he thought about, if his existential oeuvre is any indication. To hell with the persona, he seems to be saying. Don’t you see what it does to people? It’s an experiment, maybe. To show people that you can’t really escape from the real world. The real world will follow you, beg you for answers, shake you till you say something. But you don’t have to say anything back if you don’t want to. You don’t always have to play the game.

To check out the rest of Lyvie’s picks, visit Blossom at Letterboxd.

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