Nina (Black Swan, 2010, dir. Darren Aronofsky), Édith Piaf (La vie en rose, 2007, dir. Olivier Dahan) and Satine (Moulin Rouge!, 2001, dir. Baz Luhrmann) are artists whose work is based on exposure and the artifice of perfection. Their leisure of performing became their work and in order to be successful art and hard physical labour must be combined and maintained. To uphold these potential counter-poles it requires concentration, absolute dedication and a pertinacious routine.
Nina rejects the idea of being just another dancer, another copy of a Swan Queen, nevertheless she seeks inspirations to form herself. A little less obsessed and self-destructive as much as role-constructive than Nina, is Satine, who looks up to one particular idol, but still is over-dedicated to her starlight position at the Moulin Rouge. The mesmerising embodiment of Marion Cotillard’s Piaf is uncanny and unbeatable, the original and the interpretation have merged completely.
What all of them have in common is that they represent leisure and amusement for an audience. Should they fail in providing this, they will fall. If they cannot make their art work it is useless. They must sacrifice everything to let the show go on even though their bodies are sick, abused and dying. If the body fails to ‘work’ and function they threaten it, either with drugs, persevering dictatorship or whiplashing ignorance.
Another factor that all of them share are their creative, influential alpha-figures who orchestrate and reinforce their progress, maintenance and pressure. Thomas Leroy, Harold Zidler and Raymond Asso want to make the show work and they control their artists in such a way that they extract everything they need from them. They create and destroy simultaneously.
What the audience will see in the end is the perfectly shaped and trained product ready to be copied and praised, although the real show and work takes place behind the curtains. Nina delivers the most glorious performance and like a décadent she will apparently die immediately after it. She rigorously forces her wounded body to adapt its survival to the needs of the stage and its spectators, only afterwards she allows her body to be a body, not a machine, not an artwork. But her physical deterioration already takes place on stage where it has absolutely no right of existence, except if it is a part of the show.
Satine, like Nina, shows weaknesses on stage, which do not belong to the character she is asked to perform. Her body is infected with tuberculosis and whilst the outer appearance is kept flawless, she collapses during her act, depriving the audience of their leisure activity and forcing Zidler to show what he can do best: make up. After a literally breath-taking performance Satine will die behind the red curtain, the audience is applauding post-mortem, ignorant until the very end, but they got what they paid for: a good show, the rest is history.
Although Piaf does not die on stage, it certainly is a sphere of life and death for her, even re-birth, which is suggested by the end scene, a collage of her last great concert, flashbacks of her youth and the moment she deceases. If an artist risks to live on stage, he/she risks to die on it. Like Satine she openly collapses on stage, forgets her texts and loses all control over her body which she continuously abuses. What the audience wants to see in the spotlight is an Übermensch who must not give away the impression that he/she is working, but performing art. The audience must believe in the illusion during this time, it must not be a repetition or continuance of his/her everyday life. Even after Piaf is carried off-stage, the audience is applauding, begging, insisting, calling her name. But if the artist fails to perform, the audience wants their money back, because they worked hard for it, right?