For Art’s Sake: ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ Explore the Line Between Art and Self-Destruction

How must one transform oneself in order to be fulfilled as an artist, especially if one is a woman?  And what sacrifices must be made in order for that to happen?  Welcome to the first installment of FILM STRIPS, where I share with you some of my favorites and hopefully have some fun deconstructing them along the way.  Here, I submit for tonight’s double feature Darren Aronofsky’s Oscar®-winning Black Swan (2010) and Rob Marshall’s controversial Memoirs of a Geisha (2006).  Both films immerse the viewer in two worlds which seem different, but actually are much similar at second glance:  the former, a ballet company in modern-day New York City; the latter, a geisha house in 1930s Japan.  Both worlds, despite being inhabited mostly by women, find themselves at the hands of powerful men. 

A nod to the Hans Christian Andersen-penned classic The Red Shoes, Aronofsky’s film tells the story of Nina Sayres (Natalie Portman), a corps dancer who dreams of becoming a prima ballerina.  On the cusp on a new season, Nina’s dance company undergoes preparations for an exciting new production of Swan Lake.  Obsessed with nabbing the lead role as the Swan Queen, sweet and innocent Nina desperately tries to convince the show’s director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) that she can play both sides which inhabit the Swan Queen: not only the equally pure White Swan, but also the dark Black Swan.  What results is a psychological breakdown which has Nina sacrificing the most important thing of all: herself. 

Memoirs follows young Chiyo, a fisherman’s daughter who sold to an okiya, or geisha house,when her mother falls ill.  Not understanding the more lenient fate she is given compared to that of her sister Satsu, who is sent to a house in the Pleasure District, Chiyo at first defies house rules, racking up a debt which eventually bars her from her future as a geisha.  Years pass until the fate of now-teenage Chiyo (Zhang Ziyi) is lent a hand, in the form of a mysterious veteran geisha, Mameha (Michelle Yeoh).  Under Mameha’s tutelage, Chiyo blooms into Sayuri, the most desired geisha in the the whole hanamachi.  However, with success comes its burdens, and Sayuri must choose between a life of love and the life of a geisha.

Watching these two films back-to-back recently, what struck me the most were their similar themes of sacrifice for the sake of art, the rivalries that often occur between women, and of course the powerful men who control them.  While both Nina and Sayuri have very different objectives at the start of their respective journeys (Nina wishes to be prima ballerina while Sayuri takes on the task of becoming geisha to get closer to the Chairman [Ken Watanabe], the man she has loved since she was a little girl), they both endure much physical and emotional pain to get there.  In Swan, there is a short scene in which, one-by-one, Nina and her mother prepare various pairs of pointe shoes, ready to be broken in.  For many dancers, the process is familiar: the burning of the toes, the scraping of the sole, the sharp needle threaded through silky ribbon.

The moment in the film is brief, but it called to mind another film where the same process is shown: Nicholas Hytner’s Center Stage (2000).  One of my favorite moments ever in a dance film (nay, perhaps the favorite), is a montage showing dancers breaking in their shoes in Center Stage—it is a time-consuming act, but is demonstrative of the rigor and discipline which governs the lives of ballet dancers.  We see this in the case of geishas, as well, through a similar montage in Memoirs, during which Sayuri learns the practice of becoming a geisha.  As Mameha states: “Agony and beauty for us live side-by-side,” a theme that is resonant throughout both films:

Another parallel between the two films is, of course, the interactions among the women; particularly the idea of the young ingenue replacing the prima donna figure.  In the world of ballet, this is represented through the role of Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), a former principal dancer for the company who, like Nina, was also famously favored by Leroy.  Not long after we are introduced into the world of ballet at the film’s start, we learn that Beth is being phased out of her place as prima ballerina, eventually making way for Nina to make the official transition.  However, Beth isn’t going without a fight, and confronts Nina after the company’s launch party for their Swan Lake production, asking the younger dancer what she had to do to get the role.

Similarly, in Sayuri’s world, Hatsumomo serves as the reigning “prima donna” of sorts; one of the most desired geishas in the whole hanamachi, Hatsumomo provides the means necessary to keep the okiya running.  In their first encounter, Hatsumomo finds a young Chiyo in her room and immediately chides the girl for touching her things.  That encounter is then mirrored once Chiyo becomes the successful and desirable Sayuri, as she now holds ownership of Hatsumomo’s former quarters.  This time, it is Hatsumomo who trespasses — in more ways than one.  What happens next is a confrontation that quickly escalates, resulting in Sayuri coming to the following realization:

I could be her.  Were we so different?  She loved once, she hoped once.  I could be her.  I might be looking into my own future.

It’s not just the prima donnas that try to get in the way of these two protagonists.  Other female characters in both films seek to derail each respective protagonists’ goals.  In Swan, there’s the mysterious Lily, the eponymous Black Swan whose darker inclinations only help to further Nina into madness; as well as bad girl Veronica (Ksenia Solo), who becomes bitter and suspicious when it is Nina that nabs the role of the Swan Queen.  In Memoirs, when Sayuri finally has a chance to be with the Chairman, it is her childhood companion Pumpkin (Yuki Kudo) who plots to have the chairman’s best friend and confidante Nobu (Koji Yakusho) waiting for Sayuri instead.

However, though the two films center on a world of women, we must not forget it is one that is ruled by men.  For Swan‘s Nina Sayres, it’s Thomas Leroy; as for Sayuri in Memoirs, it is the various men acting as patrons (danna): The Chairman, Nobu, Dr. Crab and perhaps more ominously, Mameha’s danna, The General.  These powerful men of influence assert their power over the women the only way they know how: by taking advantage of them.  Scenes in which Leroy kisses Nina during rehearsal and The General forces Sayuri’s robes off of her behind closed doors prove that sometimes there is a higher price to pay for your art.