It has become trendy over the past decade or so for consumers and critics of culture to pick out a violent and/or disturbing movie that is tangentially related to Christmas and declare it a Christmas movie. I, too, have participated in this sort of thing. It’s fun to feel irreverent and blasphemous by saying things like, “Eyes Wide Shut, in which Tom Cruise incidentally attends a murderous sex-cult party, is a film meant in many ways to honor the birth of Jesus,” or, “My favorite holiday tradition is watching The Snowtown Murders.”
The problem with this is that we already have too many Christmas movies. There are probably 16,000 Christmas movies available to watch at any given moment, and 70 million if you count Netflix’s Christmas movies. I did not do any kind of research to back up that claim; it’s simply a feeling I have, and I think we have all learned from Christmas movies that Christmas is about having feelings and trusting them without doing any kind of backup research. But my point is, we don’t need to retroactively create more Christmas movies — this is wasted energy, an embarrassment of riches.
Now, on the other hand, we do not have even close to enough Hanukkah movies. This is in part because of millenia of anti-Semitism and in part because Hanukkah is boring. That second thing is on us, the Jews. We did some really mediocre branding a while back. Pardon our iniquity and our sin. But if we (now I’m back to the royal “we,” not the Jews “we”) have the mental energy and space to go around calling everything a Christmas movie, why don’t we do the same thing with Hanukkah? Let’s balance the scales, shall we? Let’s talk about how Black Swan is actually a Hanukkah movie.
First, let’s define the terms of our argument. What makes something a Hanukkah movie? I’d say it’s the same things that make something a Christmas movie: The movie comes out around the time of the holiday, its story takes place around the time of the holiday, it obliquely references some of the themes put forth by the holiday’s lore, it features at least one scene involving holiday décor or a holiday costume of some kind, and it seethes with extreme familial dysfunction.
Many people have said that Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a film about the exacting standards placed upon a fragile ballerina (Natalie Portman), who cannot withstand the ever-multiplying pressures of the ballerina industry. I’m here to suggest that it’s actually about Hanukkah. First of all, it was released on December 3, 2010, which was smack in the middle of Hanukkah in 2010. It also takes place in the early wintertime — it’s cold, but there’s no snow on the ground — which, famously, is when Hanukkah happens. Darren Aronofsky, a Jewish man, must have planned as much. Why wouldn’t he, after he went so far as to populate the entire film with Jews: Natalie Portman (née Hershlag), Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder (née Horowitz), Barbara Hershey (née Herzstein), and Vincent Cassel, who has played Jewish several times but is not actually Jewish?
Though it’s never stated explicitly, Black Swan’s protagonist, Nina Sayers, is also very clearly Jewish. “Sayers” is a classically Jewish last name, while “Nina” means “little girl” in Spanish, and the entire film is about the stunted emotional growth and infantilization of Portman’s character. Nina bites and picks her nails obsessively, a neurotic Jewish trait that my entire family has inherited to the point of landing ourselves in the hospital due to over-biting. Nina is always cold; she wears scarves on top of sweaters on top of leotards indoors, and walks around in fuzzy slipper boots. Anecdotal evidence (my entire life) has informed me that Jewish people are often really cold and love to walk around the house in fleeces, even in the summertime, perhaps in part because they set the thermostat very low and then never explain why. Nina’s propensity for shrugs struck me as well, seeing as shrugs were the unofficial status symbol of my extremely Jewish hometown for much of the early aughts.
Early on in Black Swan, Nina’s artistic director (Cassel) briefly explains the plot of Swan Lake, the ballet they’ll be performing and that Nina will star in. “Everyone knows the story,” he begins like a (hot, French) Hebrew school teacher before launching into the central deranged fable, which tells the story of a woman trapped in the body of a white swan and whose evil sister seduces her lover, inspiring the White Swan to kill herself. This is, give or take a few birds, quite similar to the story of Rachel, Jacob, and Leah — a Jewish woman dying dramatically because her one true love married her sister.
Because Aronofsky simply loves to make the implicit explicit, much of Black Swan involves Nina slowly morphing into, well, a black swan, growing feathers and scales and red eyes and wings. By the end of the film, she has become — at least in her mind, and on our screens — an actual huge bird. This is some real Old Testament shit. Not to mention that Jews love huge birds. I would go so far as to say dressing up like a huge bird is, in its own way, a Hanukkah costume, insofar as actual Hanukkah costumes do not exist.
Nina’s mother, Erica, is a classic Jewish stage mom, which is to say, different from a goyishe stage mom in several very specific ways. Nina’s mom has taught her to be obsessed with perfection — not necessarily glitz and glamour and stardom and wealth, but the ascetic concept of perfection for perfection’s sake, and often at the expense of all of the other things I just mentioned, which are the only fun parts of being “perfect” at something. It’s not a coincidence, either, that Nina’s mother just happens to want her daughter to be perfect at dance classes — this is ingrained in the American Jewish identity. All Jewish girls must take at least 14 dance classes over the course of their youth, even if they hate it, and even if they are bad at dance. They just have to. My hometown fixated specifically on hip-hop and jazz-tap dance classes, but any dance class will do. Nina’s mother also feeds Nina a gigantic cake when Nina is trying to diet for the ballet at her mother’s insistence, something every Jewish mother is trained to do by her own Jewish mother, and so it shall be forever.
Another accepted Jewish rite of passage is going to the bathroom at dance class and calling your mom from a cell phone and crying. Whether you are crying out of happiness or sadness is inconsequential — you just have to cry, and it has to be in a bathroom stall at dance class. Darren Aronofsky, who surrounds himself with Jewish women (except for Jennifer Lawrence), must know this, and that’s why he included the now-infamous scene wherein Nina goes to the bathroom at dance class, calls her mom from a cell phone, and cries. The only misstep in this scene is when Nina calls her mom “mommy.” I have never known a Jewish family who refers to their matriarch as “mommy.” It’s either “mom” or, while passing through a pseudo-rebellious phase, “Erica.” (Even if her name is not Erica.)
There’s more. About half of Black Swan takes place at Lincoln Center, which is a sort of unofficial polestar for East Coast Jewish people. The film’s color palette often skews a chilly white or gray — muted, depressing, and two out of three of the inexplicably official colors of Hanukkah. The score, which is based on Tchaikovsky’s for Swan Lake except much sadder on purpose, is full of minor keys, which are the only keys that the Jewish people recognize. And the film’s central subject — an obsession with perfection so deep that its only true realization can be achieved in death — could not be more Jewish if it tried. If there’s anything we Jewish people love more than striving for unattainable perfection, it is thinking about and talking about death. By way of example, my own family’s favorite joke is to bring up a dead person we once loved and say, “They’re still dead,” then laugh hysterically.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: Fine, Black Swan is really Jewish, perhaps even Hanukkah-esque in nature, but how is it about Hanukkah specifically? I’m glad you asked. First of all, I already said the thing about how it was released right in the middle of Hanukkah, when Darren Aronofsky had 357 other days to choose from in the calendar year. But there’s also this: Hanukkah centers on the much-debated story of the Maccabees, who witnessed a miracle when their tiny amount of remaining olive oil burned, against all odds, for eight days (this is the extent of my understanding re: Hanukkah, because as I have previously mentioned, it is boring). What is Black Swan about, if not a woman whose candle is burning, quite rapidly, at both ends? A woman who has long since run out of metaphorical olive oil, but still finds the temporary strength to do an entire Lincoln Center ballet?