The 67th Venice Film Festival got off to a flying start yesterday with Darren Aronofsky's extraordinary Black Swan, a gripping, surreal psychological thriller that rests squarely on the shoulders of its chic young star, Natalie Portman, just as the director's last film, The Wrestler, did on its grizzled veteran, Mickey Rourke. As first sight, it's hard to tell who's going further out there, Aronofsky, with a heady, intoxicating and challenging film that weaves the lush poetry of Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes with the chilling, psychotic surrealism of Roman Polanski's Repulsion, or Portman, whose performance has just sky-rocketed into the year's top five. The public screening yesterday seemed a little dark, with several apparent shock scenes that simply didn't work because the image was too murky (dialogue, too, seemed a bit muffled), so I think I'll need to see this one again if, fingers crossed and no promises, Black Swan comes to the London Film Festival.
The story reminded me heavily of Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher*, in that it's about a woman going mad and letting go; as Nina, Portman is an introverted, perfectionist dancer who lives in a joyless flat with her over-protective mother Erica (Barbara Hershey). Erica was forced into retirement when she fell pregnant with Nina, and this frustrated, disappointed woman seems determined to live her life vicariously through her daughter. Nina, in turn, is obsessed with winning the lead role in new production of Swan Lake from the ballet company's alpha-male director Thomas (Vincent Cassel).
But Thomas is not convinced. To play the Swan Queen, Nina must also play the wild, libidinous Black Queen, whose back-stabbing plot leads to the Swan Queen's suicide. Nina feels too insecure to let go, and as she struggles to loosen up for the part, a new girl, Lily (Mila Kunis), joins the troupe from San Francisco. Rebellious and irresponsible, Lily represents to Nina everything she isn't, to the point where Nina begins to think that Lily is deliberately sabotaging her career. And Nina has seen that happen before – in the background of this already shadowy film is Beth (Winona Ryder), a ballet grande-dame who has been put out to pasture in her early 40s. Nina puts Beth on a pedestal, stealing her make-up when she's not looking, but this idolatry is self-serving: Nina just wants some of Beth's talent/magic to rub off, so she can disappear into the role and create the perfect Swan Queen/Black Swan configuration.
The trailer suggests some magic-realist or even supernatural elements, but, at its core, Black Swan is a very realist film about the mind, how Nina persuades herself of plots and intrigues that may or may not be there, and the film's seething sexual undercurrents will certainly not play well with middle America, where Portman is still America's sweetheart. She really earns her stripes here, looking at times like a young Liz Taylor, especially in the stunning climactic ballet sequences where Matthew Libatique's amazing cinematography becomes another character in the movie.
But, if anything, the film offers yet more proof that Aronofsky is a filmmaker who will, like The Ram, go down fighting; anyone who still doubts his talents, especially those who didn't see much beauty in his over-maligned fantasy epic The Fountain, will see that this is a director who is intent on finding his place in the continuum of modern cinema. At the moment, the film, for me, is still too fresh to filter, but I suspect that once it has settled, and I've stopped wondering why it reminded me of films as diverse as Brian De Palma's Sisters, P&P's Black Narcissus and John Cassavetes' Opening Night, it will reveal itself as a film of great power and longevity.
Coming next: MACHETE!!!!
* In the services of disclosure, I originally wrote The Pianist, because the film's original title is called La Pianiste, and (especially) when in Venice I tend to get translation brainstorms. This is why I once referred to Life Is Beautiful as Life Is Sweet. But that was before the internet police arrived, and I think I got away with it...