When Black Swan was released, I’d seen nothing in the way of trailers or promotional material, save for the awesome poster atop this review and precisely one review of the film that liked it well enough. I went to see it, keen to take in Aronofsky’s newest, and by the end of the film, was impressed but completely hooked on one question – had he actually remade Perfect Blue?
Perfect Blue doesn’t follow the exact same plot as Black Swan but there are striking similarities. Both stories feature a troubled protagonist who is put under pressure in a performative career, both have thematic concerns about the fracturing and/or loss of identity, and in both stories, the protagonists’ major spiral is kicked off by a sexual awakening of sorts.
In Perfect Blue, the protagonist is Mima, a pop-singer now embarking on the beginning of an acting career. Many doubt she’ll succeed, and many have concerns over the first project she’s appearing in: a sexually-charged crime thriller in which Mima will portray a rape victim.
Throughout the film, Mima starts losing her grip on reality, blurring between the fictional story in which she’s appearing and the dramatic events in her own life, not least of all because a crazed fan of Mima’s, not happy with her change to an acting career, has started impersonating her with a scarily accurate amount of detail. Mima’s also haunted by visions of her former popstar image, threatening to take back what’s hers.
People start dying, and as the film expertly weaves the blurred realities, we’re never entirely sure (until the film’s final moments) what is real and what isn’t, and what Mima might be doing in real life and as part of the film, and how much the violence in the film is part of Mima’s delusions or may actually be happening.
In Black Swan, the protagonist is Nina, a meek ballerina who is embarking on her first starring role after many years of being overlooked by the company she works for. She’s playing the title Swan princess in a production of Swan Lake, only to discover her perfect technique is hampering her ability to perform the more licentious character of the Black Swan.
Threatening her success here is the arrival of Lily, a sexually free and vivacious girl whose technique is not as perfect as Nina’s, but makes her a significant threat to Nina’s ability to play the Black Swam. There’s the additional problem of Nina’s mother, a stern and overbearing stage mother who is definitely living out her own failed ambitions through Nina, and has locked Nina in a state of childlike naivety, which is at odds with the young woman’s repressed sexual desires.
These desires come to the fore when the ballet’s director tells Nina she needs to find her sexuality in order to tap in to the character of the Black Swan. Nina’s also haunted by visions of her darker side in the form of the Black Swan emerging.
The only problem is, the repressed girl starts having the lines of reality blur between her own self and the two characters she’s playing. Her delusions start manifesting themselves more and more definitively until even she is unaware of what’s real.
Black Swan is a fantastic film that’s brilliantly put together and features fantastic performances. It’s tightly crafted, even if it doesn’t hold up to too much scrutiny on a logic sense (it’s really really common for two different dancers to play the two swans for instance) and has a roughly-15-minute-sequence of high-tension frenzy towards the end that will leave you breathless. That said, and it’s the point of this discussion, I feel it owes most of its success to Perfect Blue.
Perfect Blue on the other hand, is the best film you’ve never seen, unless you’re a) an anime fan, or b) friends with an anime fan who has undoubtedly said “no really, you need to see this movie.” It has one of the highest Holy Shit Quotients of any movie out there, and is absolutely masterful in its balance of reality/delusion/fiction/non-fiction scenes to the point where it blows your mind, in a completely comprehensible way.
IS BLACK SWAN A REMAKE?
In writing those two different plot summaries, I see how it would be easy to dismiss it and say “no, of course they’re not.” They seem similar, but I maintain in execution, Aronofsky was adapting the former work. Not necessarily to tell the same story, but imagine he’s taken apart a Lego house to piece together one of his own using the same bricks.
There’re the obvious similarities between the character names (they’re only one letter next to each other on a keyboard different!), the performative professions of dancer and actor/singer and the key themes of sexual awakening being a traumatic experience if it doesn’t happen peacefully. It’s here that the major thematic variation occurs.
In Perfect Blue, Mima is already feeling the pressure of her new career choice, and things have started getting hectic but it’s only once she’s actually had to film the scene in which she’s the victim of a gang rape that things start getting really intense. The way the film is told, there’s a fair amount of evidence to support the theory that the scene is actually real, and that Mima’s created the resulting “acting” career as an excuse and her angelic popstar persona as a purified version of herself before the trauma of the rape. Thankfully, the film seems to refute that at the end, but the trauma is still very much real, and it’s very much the first inkling of sex in Mima’s life as we’re to understand it as the viewer – it’s the sole event that fractures everything beyond control.
In Black Swan the issue is very much that Nina has had to repress her own sexuality, or perhaps not “had to” but the fact is that it has been. Having her mother dedicate her life to ballet for her, Nina isn’t aware of anything beyond the scope of her life in the apartment under her mother’s watch, and her life as a ballerina, under her mother’s demands.
Tellingly, the first time Nina even tries to explore her sexuality by masturbating, she discovers (apparently immediately before the moment of orgasm too, as implied by the film) that her mother is asleep in the chair next to her bed. This furthers the shame and embarrassment she clearly feels about matters of sex, which conflict with her inner desires to become a sexual being, as evidenced by the Black Swan character emerging soon after, almost literally (as much as Nina’s delusions can be literal) with her body transforming into that of a black swan.
This dichotomy is stylistically foreshadowed in shots like the one of the mirror above; it’s not that Nina’s sexuality should be considered whorish by the viewer, it’s that Nina herself operates on two spectrums that are so oppositional that in the middle of that fight, her identity becomes unbalanced, thus tying us back into the fractured-identity-through-matters-of-sex theme from Perfect Blue.
I would dismiss the two films as just being very similar and explaining it away as Aronofsky homaging the earlier film, except that he owns the remake rights to Perfect Blue. When filming Requiem for a Dream, he saw Perfect Blue and wanted to recreate one of its scenes, and to do this, purchased the film rights to Perfect Blue so he could recreate the scene exactly.
New viewers of Perfect Blue are often left wondering why it was made as an anime, given that beyond the mere animation itself, it doesn’t observe any of the usual tropes or conventions of anime. The is that it was going to be live action before the 1995 earthquake devastated the studio and leaving them without the budget – it’s also why the animation in Perfect Blue can be pretty shoddy at times.
But rather than creating an outright retelling of the same story, Aronofsky has taken the elements from Perfect Blue that translate so well and crafted his own story around them. He has literally remade the film.
The two films appeal on a subconscious level – I think they hit the part of our mind that makes us sometimes feel like things are a bit beyond our control, that we’re soldiering through but only just holding it all together. Although it’s not directly referenced between the two films, both have a sense of the architecture of each protagonist’s home trapping them within their confines – Mima’s apartment is small and confined, Nina’s home is narrow and cluttered.
On some level, we’re asked to identify with the characters as they have their lives slowly pulled out from under them and not being able to find the proper reprieve in the company of those closest to them.
It sets us up nicely so that when the final acts come about, the process is not only dramatic and edge-of-the-seat thrilling, but it’s also cathartic. Both films, in different ways, culminate in the protagonist’s defining moment of clarity, and these moments (although one is relieving, the other tragic) are what essentially take the viewer back into the comfort of their own certainties.
Not only do the two stories match up against so many similar themes and concepts, their actual approach and method are the same, leading me to once again stake the claim that Black Swan is, while not a carbon-copy, absolutely a remake of Perfect Blue.
But what does that say about the latter film? I believe it’s a remake, and I believe it owes a lot of its success to Perfect Blue, but at the same time would regard it as its own separate entity. I think Aronofsky has taken the first film and definitely shaped it into his own creation, but the important thing is that it is his creation. There are similarities, there are references, there are the same building blocks, but it’s still very much his own film. If anything, it has more to do with his previous efforts in The Wrestler stylistically than it does in aping Perfect Blue.
So yes, I’d say it’s a remake, but neither film is necessarily better than the other. I certainly prefer one over the other, but I love both of them. This isn’t a review to say “pick one” but more “acknowledge both.” They’re both fantastic thrillers that you should see and should see in comparison.
The Perfect Blue trailer below is horribly naff. Don’t judge the film by the quality of the trailer.
And not to labour the point too much: