In ‘Weirdness’, Modernity and the Other Europe in Attenberg by Jun Okada, mimicry is interpreted as a mechanism through which people acquire their knowledge base and constitute their identities. While Okada is right to say that imitation has clear importance for identity, we nonetheless have to transcend this default responsiveness to foreign figures in order to build our own agency and become an individual. However, there exists an unavoidable risk that infests any identities acquired through mimicry: the phenomenon of over-imitation. This essay argues that over-imitation, exemplified in Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos), Nine to Five (Filippos Tsapekis), and Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky), is the mechanism that dissolves people’s personal identities and steals their individual agency at the juncture of self-annihilation.
The plots of these films provide the audience with contexts populated by over-imitation. In Alps, a group of nameless characters creates an underground organization that provides human substitutes for lost families and friends. As the film gradually focuses on the nurse, code-named Monte Rosa (Angeliki Papoulia), the nature of this replacement agency’s service is revealed to be over-imitating the detailed words, behaviors, and even appearance of specific roles to better impersonate them. This mimetic process obscures the original physical or even cultural differences between the imitated and the imitator. In Black Swan, the extensive use of a visual element, mirrors, is loaded with meaning for imitation. Among several scenes, the one shot in a rehearsal studio most explicitly exemplifies the visual confusion produced by mirror reflection. Manipulating mirrors and bodies with frequent switches between static long shots, cut-ins, and shaky tracking shots, the film confuses characters in the flesh with mirror images for the audience. This visual uncertainty is enhanced by the mostly identical body types, hairstyles, makeup, and movements of all ballerinas. To human eyes, they are almost replications of each other and the classical standard for ballet dancers, a fact that visually dramatizes the potential outcome of over-imitation.
The over-imitative behaviors in Alps and the mirroring effect in Black Swan inevitably facilitate the process that “upend hard and fast distinctions between truth and lie, reality and illusion, the actual and the virtual” (Thomas Elsaesser, 17), an effect which later leads to the juncture of self-annihilation for the imitator. This process is contained in a dinner scene where Monte Rosa tediously lists the traits of Vassilis (Vasilis Zaziras), the boyfriend of a dead tennis player (Maria Kyrozi) she impersonates, for her father (Stavros Psyllakis). On one hand, her disclaimer: “Vassilis is younger than me…we met at the hospital”, nonetheless echoes her dual identities as her father’s daughter and a nurse. But on the other hand, her sentences riddled with false facts signal the imitative identity’s invasion of her own. She introduces Mary’s (the dead tennis player) boyfriend to her father as if they are the couple. What’s more, she speaks in a fashion that seems to act out what would happen next in the script after Mary’s parents find out about their daughter’s relationship. Trapped within these interchangeable identities, Monte Rosa starts to confuse pretend performance with her real life.
In Black Swan, the blurry boundary between reality and imagination brought about by over-imitation is more explicitly expressed through its extensive use of mirroring effect and mirror images. After her failed tryout for the Swan Queen which embodies the archetypally opposite White and Black Swans, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) encounters her imaginative double. Captured by shaky camera, Nina incarnates the fragile White Swan: She has her hair tied back in a bun, wears a pink coat and a white scarf, and walks quietly. On the contrary, her double is the ideal Black Swan, dressing ominously in black, letting her hair down and walking fast in high heels. Just as the mirror reflection is identical to an actual person except for the left-right reversal, a double is the analogue of a mirror image – identical to its embodied individual except for the psychological reversal. Nina’s seductive and confident double is whom she must become if she is to embody the Black Swan, and she sets out to mirror a series of figures resembling this role in an attempt to become the lead ballerina of Swan Lake. Later in a scene where a ballet mistress is giving Nina instructions on how to perform the Black Swan, the over-shoulder shot, capturing both bodies with a mirror interrupting the space between them, renders a mirroring effect through the gradually synchronized movements of these two dressed in opposite color. As the story unfolds, Nina’s over-imitation of the Black Swan images can no longer be contained in a performance space. Her dinner with Lily (Mila Kunis), a girl with a tattoo that looks like the wings of a swan on her back, reveals the process of her metamorphosis into the mirror image of another figure resembling the Black Swan. Nina, the “sweet girl” who always dresses in pink and gets chocked by the smoke of a cigarette, changes into Lily’s black vest and takes drug with her.
While Nina’s over-imitation of Black Swan’s representatives starts to infect her real life, the blurry boundaries between reality and imagination also begin to materialize. As the differences in physical appearance between her and her double gradually disappear, Nina starts to project herself as her double into her own mirror image: She stands with arms down gazing at her reflection which uncannily scratches her own back where black feathers will eventually grow out. The demarcation line that separates her not only from her imaginative double, but also from the virtual Black Swan is eventually erased at the final show of Swan Lake. As Nina swoops and twirls, performing the dazzling fouettés of Odile’s coda, she sprouts immense black wings and incarnates a black swan.
Yet what comes after the seeming success for Monte Rosa as a good substitute and Nina as the perfect Swan Queen is the negative juncture of self-annihilation. According to Psaras, when the line separating the actual and the virtual dissipates, the true nature of the identities left in this process is “none other than that of fiction” (Marios Psaras, 157). As the two films develop, they both provide the audience with implications that point towards this undesirable outcome of over-imitation. In the same dinner scene of Alps mentioned in the previous paragraphs, Monte Rosa chokes with sobs at a point in her mechanical description of her “boyfriend”, as if she has already sensed her impending self-loss. After the fundraiser gala in Black Swan, Nina comes across a bronze sculpture, so disfigured as if it was once engulfed in flames. Its wings are ragged, and its hollow dark eyes look grimly out of a pale face smeared with white paint. Reminding us of Icarus who flies too close to the Sun and burns himself alive, this sculpture, entitled Future Clone, serves as a metaphor of what is to come for Nina.
The self-annihilating juncture of Monte Rosa is manifested when the imitative identity is taken away from her. After the gymnast (Ariane Labed) from the same agency replaces her as the substitute for Mary, the dead tennis player, a medium shot captures Monte Rosa at the center of the frame. Wearing an over-sized down jacket, shoulder bag, and small tennis shorts, she looks lost and out of place compared to the green plants and sunlight that dominate the background in this scene. While her original dual identities as a nurse and her father’s daughter dissolve into the over-imitation, she is left as an empty shell who breaks into Mary’s house in a desperate attempt to acquire any form of identity. After Monte Rosa puts on Mary’s perfume and lies in her bed to impersonate her in every detail, the film reaches its most mentally disturbing scene as she frantically clings to the stairs like zombie grabbing on fresh meat while being violently dragged out of the mansion. By depicting her as a deindividualized hollow shell who craves identities, the film substantiates the juncture of self-annihilation as a result of over-imitation.
Taking the interpretations of self-loss to another level, Black Swan externalizes this phenomenon as a conjuncture where the differences between the subject of imitation and its imitator disappear in every possible aspect, thus generating mere duplications. Early in the film, the director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), explains to his troupe that their adaptation of Swan Lake is to “strip it down, make it visceral and real”. Yet this description of the plot is brought to literal meaning as the play climaxes with the performance of the dying White Swan. Before she goes up on stage, Nina puts on the makeup that takes us back to the image of Future Clone, and when she finishes the entire show with flying colors, she materializes the prevision given by that sculpture. Just like Icarus who sacrifices himself in his quest, Nina also gives up herself in perfecting a role, lying at the brink of death on the ground. To take this further, the bloody wound on her stomach, visceral and real, suggests that she not only becomes the mirror image of her role, but also reflects the very plot it resides in. This visceral wound and the mirror shard in it, serving as an analogue for the imitative identity embedded within her, secure this film’s insight into the nature of over-imitation, and more precisely, the fact that it erases the imitator’s original self and anchors a foreign identity instead.
So far, this essay has discovered the juncture where the repetition of imitative behaviors crosses the threshold for self-annihilation. It explains how this juncture comes into being when over-imitation blurs the boundary between the actual and the virtual, and interprets self-annihilation as the complete obliteration of one’s own identities in the plots of two films. However, the depiction of false goals and choices within the context of over-imitation, especially in Black Swan and Nine to Five, invites further interpretations of self-loss. According to Thomas Elsaesser, “the ability to make choices” and the capacity for “motivation and goals” compose the content of agency (Thomas Elsaesser, 2-3). Thereby, the self-annihilating juncture of over-imitation not only stands for the loss of personal identities, but also refers to the deprivation of individual agency in these films.
The plot analysis of Black Swan confronts the audience with a fact that the heroine’s personal goal is fundamentally unoriginal. Early in the film, we are shown Nina and her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey) in a breakfast scene where an over-shoulder shot captures their movements in perfect unison as they repeat Nina’s childish description of the breakfast: “Pretty”. Together with Nina’s nickname, “sweet girl”, the mirroring effect between them renders a strong sense that she serves as a reflection for the sweet-girl identity that her mother expects. However, this identity is what prevents her from performing the evil Black Swan. Trying to forge Nina into the ideal casting for this role, Thomas stops her when she prepares to leave after a seemingly failed attempt to ask for the part and says that: “In four years…I never see you lose yourself…Perfection is not just about control. It’s also about letting go”. Responding to his rather precise language, Nina performs a trial of overly imitative behaviors to escape the sweet-girl identity and transcend into the Black Swan. In the dinner scene where she mirrors Lily, a figure that resembles Black Swan, she shuts her phone with a snap when it displays a pink caller-identification, “Mom”, an action which signals her rejection of the role associated with her overbearing mother. Nina’s determination to cast this identity away and perfectly perform the Black Swan reaches its strongest manifestation when she bossily takes back her role from Lily and tells her director: “I’m here, Thomas. I’m doing it”, a bold and self-confident gesture that doesn’t belong to her previous characteristic. But her metamorphosis into the Black Swan is precisely what Thomas has been aiming for. Seeing Nina gradually approximates his ideal, he whispers in her ear like a demon possessing its host: “The only person standing in your way is you. It’s time to let her go. Lose yourself”.
In addition to the loss of personal identities, Black Swan also presents the formation of a false goal as the outcome of over-imitation, in the sense that Nina’s determination to abandon her sweet-girl identity and become the Black Swan through mimetic behaviors in fact mirrors her director’s ultimate goal. Rendering the purpose of her actions ungenuine, this film reveals the possibility that the agency of an individual who performs overly imitative behaviors is essentially an illusion. What confirms this negative possibility is the illustration of false choices through the depiction of characters forced into over-imitation in Nine to Five. Since democracy is “substantially emptied” when “decisions are…presented as imperative necessities”, choices that have no effect on outcomes is what signals the complete loss of individual agency (Alex Lykidis, 11).
By revealing the illusory nature of the choices they have, Nine to Five explicitly manifests the deprivation of imitators’ agency and adds it to the interpretation of self-loss. In the film, individuals are treated as mechanical reproductions, in the sense that they are mere vessels that the authorities use to contain different genders and identities. Once their physical conditions disqualify them from performing the current roles, they will be forced into new identities. To this end, the governmental authority coerces them into over-imitation without their consent. After the protagonist, Mr. Papadakis Ioannis (Yiannis Papadopoulos), fails the physical test which disproves him as a functional social member, the policewoman (Kora Karvouni) announces the punishment, “You are now a curator for a public lavatory Mrs. Papadaki”. She then continues to elaborate in a horrifyingly precise fashion the details of a new identity he will perfectly imitate to erase his current self-identity as a lawyer despite his rejection.
But what comes after this scene, depicting the over-imitation arbitrarily imposed on the imitator by an authority figure, is a surprising gesture of the policewoman to execute her decision with the consent of Papadakis. However, this gesture soon turns out to be ceremonial, given that the punishment will be carried out in any case. Thereby, Nine to Five reveals the illusory nature of the imitator’s choices and later expresses it in a densely complex form as the film ends with a pan shot. On a superficial level, the people in this long take, no matter what tools they use to commit suicide, all arrive at the same pre-determined result – becoming indistinguishable corpses piled up in the room. Further, although death can offer them a temporal escape from the unacceptable reality, they have no choice but to later reincarnate as a different person. Lastly, all these ways to die are by all means unrelated to the end results, meaning that the choices they make at this point have no influence on what is to come in principle. Together with the soothing music, the nature of choices in this process where people prepare to reincarnate as a new person through over-imitation is revealed to be ceremonial, merely serving to render a false sense of peacefulness.
Working in support of each other, the depiction of false goals in Black Swan and the illustration of false choices in Nine to Five reveal the deprivation of agency as another outcome of over-imitation. The films in this essay, with their use of an eclectic mix of props, lighting, music, camera perspectives, and special-effects, provide a visual foundation upon which to build a coherent analysis, illustrating how over-imitation blurs the boundary between imagination and reality and leads to the loss of one’s identity. As the mediums that condense the expression of knowledge with psychoanalytic and political meaning, they also invite an alternative understanding of over-imitation’s consequences, which allows the juncture of self-annihilation to incorporate not only the deprivation of personal identity, but also the loss of individual agency. (2641 words)
Jun Okada, Edited by Michael Gott and Todd Herzog, ‘Weirdness’, Modernity and the Other Europe in Attenberg (2010, Athina Rachel Tsangari), Edinburgh University Press, 2014, P159-174. Print.
Candeias Mario, quoted in Lykidis, A. (2015), Crisis of sovereignty in recent Greek cinema, Journal of Greek Media & Culture 1: 1, pp. 9–27. Print.
Marios Psaras, Alps: Of Hauntology, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, pp. 155–181. Print.
Thomas Elsaesser (2018), Contingency, causality, complexity: distributed agency in the mind-game film, New Review of Film and Television Studies, 16:1, pp1-39
Yorgos Lanthimos, director. Alps. Haos Film.
Filippos Tsapekis, director. Nine to Five. Blackcherry.
Darren Aronofsky, director. Black Swan. Cross Creek Pictures.