True Grit and Black Swan have, superficially, not much in common. One is a blackly humorous Western where men shoot at each other, and at cornbread, with little provocation. The other is a ballet melodrama of the old school where most of the violence is self-inflicted.
One is literary & masterful; the other is (almost) camp.
One is funny; the other is — well, also funny. Certainly it makes its critics hilarious.
I enjoyed both to varying degrees but I recently realized that they do have a very interesting theme in common. They’re about virgins. What are virgins capable of? Can they be taken seriously, by men, as avengers? How about as artists?
In True Grit the two main male characters, played beautifully by Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges, don’t know what to make of Mattie, the 14-year-old heroine who comes to them for help in tracking down her father’s killer. She’s too old to be a child and yet she’s not fuckable either — she’s called ugly at one point, and she wears her father’s over-sized clothes. Her in-between status unsettles them. Matt Damon’s character, the blustering Texas ranger, tries to solve the problem one way or the other: he turns her over and spanks her. She refuses to react like a child. Though humiliated, she refuses to cry, and by continuing to act like an adult — albeit an unfuckable one — she earns the respect of both men.
In Black Swan, which is much sillier and more over-the-top, the question seems to be, Can a virgin make art? Does a woman need to be sexually experienced to portray depth of emotion on stage? This is funny to me since I consider ballet to be profoundly unsexy, but here it’s a real dilemma. Nina (Natalie Portman’s character) is hemmed in on one side by a mother who infantilizes her and on the other side by a creepy French ballet teacher who sticks his tongue down her throat and tells her to touch herself, or she won’t be able to dance the starring role.
Once you start looking for virgins in 2010, you see them everywhere. The teenage daughters in The Kids Are All Right and Please Give (two of my favorite movies of the year so far) both gave earnest, moving performances; the teenage daughter in, and heroine of, Winter’s Bone, another of my favorites, was the raw force that propelled that film forward to its resolution, which is almost unwatchable, except you can’t look away. There was no vanity in any of those performances, or in those of Hailee Steinfeld or Natalie Portman. And that is pretty impressive.
More impressive: Their virtue isn’t introduced only to be overthrown, in the manner of American Pie or similar. You could argue, in a way, that — SPOILER ALERT! — Nina even dies to preserve hers. The sexuality of these young women isn’t the focus of any of the films; largely, in fact, it’s incidental, which is no small feat in Hollywood. Only Nina is really the subject of the male gaze, and it kind of — SPOILER ALERT AGAIN! — kills her. Through penetration, of course. The Freudians probably have been having a field day with that movie.