Tarring the Black Swan: Perfectionism in Tár and Black Swan
The allure of the classic perfectionist story makes sense. Audiences are naturally drawn to classic Icarus types like Phantom Thread’s Reynolds Woodcock and Whiplash’s Andrew Neiman who strive obsessively to achieve their goals and become the best in their respective fields. Two movies who use a feminist lens to closely examine their perfectionist protagonists are Tár and Black Swan; while Black Swan portrays Nina as a victim of the male gaze and not being able to understand her own sexuality and body, Tár depicts Lydia as someone who uses her unique position in society as a woman in power to abuse those below her.
Black Swan, a 2010 psychological horror film directed by Darren Aronofsky, stars Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers, a young ballet dancer at the prestigious New York City Ballet Company. Nina is depicted as shy and innocent, and is constantly criticized by her narcissistic mother, Erica, and her lusting artistic director, Thomas. She is obsessed with the idea of perfection; Nina wants to embody both sides of the swan (the virtuous white swan Odette and the evil black swan Odile) in the ballet Swan Lake after she is cast as the Swan Queen, but is repeatedly told by Thomas that she lacks the freedom and recklessness that Odile has. Lily, played by Mila Kunis, joins the company at the beginning of the film and becomes an object of jealousy for Nina, who cannot personify the Black Swan the way Lily can. Nina becomes increasingly paranoid. She hallucinates having sex with Lily, transforming into Odile, and finding multiple injuries on her body. On opening night, Nina eventually hallucinates stabbing and killing Lily, only to find that she has stabbed herself. As Nina performs the final act in Swan Lake and throws herself off the cliff, the blood from her injury spreads and the rest of the company notices. Nina’s last words before the movie ends are: “Perfect. I felt it. It was perfect.” Nina is reserved and repressed to the point of not being able to understand her own body and identity. She consistently feels a disconnect between pain and the graphic injuries that appear on her body throughout the film. Furthermore, the control that Erica and Thomas wrestle through their emotional and sexual abuse of Nina represent the two extremes that women are forced to choose between and prevents her from figuring out who she is and who she wants to be. Erica wants Nina to be the virginal and pure Odette, while Thomas wants her to be the sexual and mysterious Odile. Nina’s quest for perfection in conquering both identities reveals that she ultimately cannot handle switching back and forth between both personas, leading to her breakdown and demise. Perfectionism also rears its head in the way Nina views her body as a ballet dancer. Ricky Ruszin writes, “Black Swan takes great pains to show the mental and physical toll that Nina's single-minded pursuit of ballet perfection takes on her. From refusing to eat the celebration cake that her mother buys her and purging to maintain her ballerina weight, we're a witness to her food guilt as well as her bulimic tendencies…[Nina’s] mental health struggles have a large hand in contributing to Nina's psychosis that she experiences throughout the movie.” People with eating disorders often see their body as something they have to control through food restriction. Nina views her body through the eyes of others and aims to control in a way that seems ‘presentable,’ preventing her from being her true self.
On the other side of perfectionism is Lydia Tár (played by Cate Blanchett), the titular character in the 2023 drama Tár, directed by Todd Field. Lydia is depicted as an extremely successful and renowned conductor; however, she is morally reprehensible and specifically uses her status as a lesbian white woman to abuse others and maintain an oligarchical inner circle. By choosing to depict her rocky personal life in tandem with her smooth public relations facade, Field expertly captures the disconnect between Tár-the-conductor and Tár-the-human. As a white woman, Tár uses her power in society to shame marginalized students, but as lesbian, she holds onto the oppression she has overcome as proof that it does not exist, and/or that she is a shining example of someone who can beat homophobic attitudes through the existence of her wife and daughter Petra. A.O Scott for the New York Times writes, “ Early on, we witness her discreet betrayal and casual gaslighting of [her wife] Sharon, her quiet humiliation of a benefactor and rival conductor (Mark Strong) and her chilling confrontation with Petra’s bully. That scene, in which Lydia introduces herself as “Petra’s father” and threatens a small child in perfect German, is both thrilling and terrifying. Her charisma is overpowering, her power unchecked and her confidence absolute.” In the second half of the movie, Tár’s public life begins to unravel as allegations come out regarding her misconduct, specifically concerning a conductor named Krista who Lydia exploited through sexual favors and later blacklisted. After failing to redeem herself in the public eye, Krista committed suicide. Her family later files a lawsuit against Tár, which culminates in her being removed from her position as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic orchestra. After tackling her replacement live on stage and leaving Sharon, Tár ends the film in the Philippines, conducting video game soundtracks. This ending not only reflects the consequences of Tár’s immoral actions by representing the exact opposite of the classist, white world of European classical music, but also the effects of the cold and tyrannical ways she treats everyone in her life. Tár’s wife Sharon, Tár’s assistant Francesca, the young cellist Olga, and Tár’s fellow conducting contemporaries–Tár holds all these people at a precise bay, praising them minimally and berating them when they forget the intensity of her power. When Tár’s abuse allegations finally come to light and shatter the illusion of her perfectness, her inner circle gains the confidence to drop her. Tár’s perfectionist tendencies cannot save her from her own lack of ethics.
Both films depict the Icarus-like downfall of characters to aspire to be perfect. Ultimately, both Nina Sayers and Lydia Tár must accept that they, although fictional, are human–just like the rest of us.
Black Swan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, performances by Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis, and Barbara Hershey. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2010.
Ruszin, Ricky. “Black Swan Ending Explained: The Price of Perfection.” Collider, 2 Feb. 2022, www.collider.com/black-swan-ending-explained.
Tár. Directed by Todd Field, performances by Cate Blanchett, Nina Hoss, Noémie Merlant, and Sophie Kauer. Standard Film Company, 2022.
Scott, A. O. “‘Tár’ Review: A Maestro Faces the Music.” The New York Times, 6 Mar. 2023, www.nytimes.com/2022/10/06/movies/tar-review.html.