The opening night selection of the sexy R-rated violent thriller Black Swan was something of a gamble for Fox Searchlight and the Venice Fest, which landed loyal fan Darren Aronofsky--after rousing Venice receptions for both The Fountain and The Wrestler, which won the Golden Lion. He talked Searchlight into accepting the opening night invite--and now has to work Telluride and Toronto as well.
Why the risk? Well, Searchlight covered their bets by making sure some stateside critics timed their early reviews--which were largely positive--with Venice.
"Welcome to this absolutely wonderful celebration of cinema," said jury president Quentin Tarantino during the opening ceremony. "We look forward to seeing the films. We hope that they invade our dreams and fulfill our passion and for all of us, amore cinema!" His fellow jury members include writer-directors Guillermo Arriaga and Luca Guadagnino, composer Danny Elfman, actress Ingeborga Dapkunaite, director Arnaud Desplechin and screenwriter Gabriele Salvatores. But the glammed up opening night audience--with Italy's President of the Republic in attendance--gave this intense, up-close and personal psychological drama a muted response. Polite applause was eventually followed by a pro forma standing ovation. Judging from chatter at the after-party at the Excelsior Hotel, many admired the film, but overall the crowd didn't love it.
My review is below.
There is much to admire in this intense emotional drama. Aronofsky considers it to be a companion piece with The Wrestler, shot in the same scruffy naturalistic style, about a similarly arcane physically debilitating competitive arena whose participants have a short shelf life: a professional ballet company. Aronofsky pulls the best performance ever out of Natalie Portman as a tightly wound ballet dancer with no life who is so obsessed with moving up in the ballet corps that she splits her toenails from practicing, is painfully thin and scratches herself bloody with stress. Living with her over-protective and invested single-mom (Barbara Hershey) doesn't help.
Give Aronofsky points for not trying to make Portman's Nina likable. Not all moviegoers will root for her to get past her demons and deliver a great stage performance. "The only thing getting in your way is you," says her demanding Svengai ballet director Thomas (Vincent Cassel). Nina is the cat who walks by herself with others in the ballet corps, who don't like her. Even recent arrival (Mila Kunis), who reaches out to her, is too gifted to not be threatening. Nina is horrified by the fate of older ballerina Beth (Winona Ryder) who is distraught when she is forced to retire. Thomas, who uses his sexuality to manipulate his dancers, picks Portman to play the lead in Swan Lake, and she is smitten with him. Cassel, who trained as a young man in ballet in New York, is superb; he says he used George Balanchine as a model.
By the time Kunis drags Portman away from Mama to unwind at a club, dropping drugs in her drink, we really don't know what Nina's reality is. She keeps seeing her dark doppleganger and other menacing things that aren't there. Does she have hot girl-on-girl sex with Kunis, or not? The movie can't help but recall Michael Powell's brilliant ballet film The Red Shoes.
But Aronofsky's in-your-face naturalistic shooting style, which works well here--the film could easily have gone too Hollywood glossy, given its milieu-- brings Nina's fears and emotions all-too close. I was ducking and wincing at Portman's self-inflicted wounds and frightened hallucinations--her back-scratching and bleeding toes and fingers. The intensity is on a level with Roman Polanski's Repulsion, Nic Roeg's Don't Look Now or Ken Russell's The Music Lovers. Yes it's brilliant, unpredictable and visceral--as Thomas tells Nina what he wants from her--but it's hard to take.
I rooted for Nina to feel, as she seeks perfect technique and starves herself of everything that makes life fun, some joy in her dancing. (Aronofsky and Portman, who endured an extreme training regimen, pull off the feat of making us think we are watching her dance.) That is what her ballet master is trying to bring out in her. I suspect that Aronofsky played that role with Portman. It worked. At the press conference, you could see a whiff of relief and pleasure cross Portman's face when the press corps gave her rousing applause. Is she Oscar bait?
While critics may admire Aronofsky's achievement here, and online fan sites responded enthusiastically to Searchlight's trailer--the movie could play to the young Searchlight smart-house crowd, but it's not a genre horror flick--I wonder how Black Swan will fare on the Academy side. It may be painful for older voters to watch. (Yes, the largely male Academy granted Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs, Mel Gibson's Braveheart and Ridley Scott's Gladiator best picture honors. But this is a smaller-scale production.) Actors may laud Portman and Cassel. Despite some breathless talk of a Portman Oscar bid, wider audience and media response in Toronto, especially, will tell the tale.