Venice and TIFF 2010. Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan"

David Hudson

The very first rumblings from the Lido are raves. Most of us can't see Mike Goodridge's review for Screen, but Awards Daily can, so here we go: "Already back on track after Venice Golden Lion winner The Wrestler, Darren Aronofsky soars to new heights with Black Swan, an enthralling drama set in the competitive world of ballet. Alternately disturbing and exhilarating, this dark study of a mentally fragile performer derailed by her obsession with perfection is one of the most exciting films to come out of the Hollywood system this year. Indeed it's the perfect film to open the autumn season with its gala at Venice tonight, a bold display of cinematic fireworks that will leave audiences breathless."

Variety's Peter Debruge draws a thicker line to The Wrestler, noting that this one "[trades] the grungy world of a broken-down fighter for the more upscale but no less brutal sphere of professional ballet. Centerstage stands Natalie Portman, whose courageous turn lays bare the myriad insecurities genuinely dedicated performers face when testing their limits, revealing shades of the actress never before seen on film. Once again, Aronofsky is drawn to the irresistible force that drives certain personality types to chase the spotlight, except in this case, the impulse doesn't seem born of some deep-seated egotism, but is simply programmed from childhood by a controlling mother (a creepy but far from one-note Barbara Hershey). Portman plays Nina, a virginal young ballerina who comes across as an incomplete soul, her single-minded interest in dance eclipsing all other aspects of her being."

The two films are more closely bound to one another than most of us knew just a few days ago. FirstShowing's Alex Billington notes that MTV got to talking with Aronofsky the other day, and evidently, he's "always considered [The Wrestler and Black Swan] companion pieces... [A]t one point, way before I made The Wrestler, I was actually developing a project that was about a love affair between a ballet dancer and a wrestler, and then it kind of split off into two movies."

"[W]hile Black Swan may reveal itself as a fairy tale, that's only after it has successfully masqueraded as a taut, witty and wickedly kinky thriller that pulls off the tricky double-bluff of following precisely the narrative course one has mapped out for it, yet emerging as all the more surprising for that adherence." Guy Lodge at In Contention. And as for the shared DNA with The Wrestler, "Both are studies of performers destructively addicted to their art, and the new film maintains the director's fascination with the broken bodies of such individuals: Matthew Libatique's camera cruelly scrutinizes the twisted, blistered shells of dancers' feet as much as the earlier film did the wrecked ghost of Mickey Rourke's body, while Aronofsky hones in on the petty rivalries and part-time camaraderie of the girls in the company as astutely as he observed Randy the Ram's meathead backstage family on the pro wrestling circuit. The difference is that Black Swan extends that fascination to the realm of the mind.... Portman has never been so cannily cast, nor so cunningly exposed, on screen.... She's bolstered by a trio of superb supporting players: Hershey and [Vincent] Cassel are clearly having a whale of a time with their helpless dragonry and arch oiliness, respectively, but it's the cool, throaty-voiced [Mila] Kunis who is the surprise package here, intelligently watching and reflecting her co-star in such a manner that we're as uncertain as Nina of her ingenuousness. (There's a neat cameo from Winona Ryder, too — notable mainly for gifting her with the unavoidably hilarious line, 'You stole my things!')"



The Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt: "The movie combines horror-movie tropes with The Red Shoes, All About Eve and every movie about show business that insists you don't have to be crazy to become a star but it doesn't hurt either. The movie is so damn out-there in every way that you can't help admiring Aronofsky for daring to be so very, very absurd."

And at Obsessed With Film, Robert Beames is left as breathless as Goodridge claims we'll all be: "Best film I've seen all year."

Updates: "As a sensory experience for the eyes and ears, Black Swan provides bountiful stimulation," blogs Todd McCarthy for indieWIRE. "But when the script by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz, based on the latter’s story, struggles to carve out a real-world parallel to the life-and-death struggle depicted in the dance story, it goes over the top in something approaching grand guignol fashion."

Mike Collett-White reports on the press conference for Reuters.

"Aronofsky makes great play of a colour scheme featuring mostly black and white," writes the Telegraph's David Gritten. "Tchaikovsky's music takes on an unsettling quality as Nina's descent progresses, all the way to the disturbing but perfect ending. Black Swan is an exhilarating if uneasy ride, one that could deliver Aronofsky his second Golden Lion here in three years... As for Portman, she can expect a busy few months at awards dinners."

Updates, 9/2: Geoffrey Macnab in the Independent: "Some of the international press in Venice seemed discomfited by the sheer extravagance of Aronofsky's directorial style — his attempts to introduce thriller and even horror movie elements to what at first seems a traditional backstage story. Like Nina herself, the director often risks losing his footing but that is what makes the filmmaking so exhilarating. Some scenes are overwrought. Others (notably a clumsily shot lesbian sequence) verge on the prurient. More often, the effect is enthralling."

Film-Zeit collects reviews appearing in the German-language press.

Lee Marshall for the Evening Standard: "It's a triumph in every — in Natalie Portman's mesmeric, Oscar-booking performance as a ballerina discovering her dark side, in the way the script interweaves dance and drama, and perhaps above all in the way it proves dark films can still work in times of recession, if they're good enough."

A first outright pan: "The movie is billed as a psychological thriller but the psychology is as monochrome as the settings and characterization," writes Roderick Conway Morris for the International Herald Tribune. "There are scenes of masturbation and sapphic sex, which are sure to get the movie talked about. The cast is dominated by women, but the view of them is stereotypical and unflattering, since the principal characters (except perhaps Lily) seem paranoid, hysterical, underhanded or manipulative, if not frankly deranged. And the climax of the film is as inevitable as it is implausible."

"Aronofsky hasn't gone off his rocker here," writes Stephanie Zacharek in Movieline. "In fact, he's very safely buckled into his rocker — he knows exactly what he's doing, and so he methodically serves up a juicy melodrama about what it means to go nuts for your art.... In Black Swan Portman gives the best female lead performance of 1955. She's both the suffering, doe-eyed good girl and the all-too-easily corruptible minx.... With her sturdy but delicate bones and demi-regal carriage, Portman is a believable ballerina. But she can't nudge the movie beyond the camp confines that Aronofsky has so strictly drawn. Kunis, on the other hand, knows how to vamp it up without amping it up. She plays her character like a dark version of Mary Tyler Moore's Mary Richards, a girl who greets the world with her vagina dentata wide-open. She's gonna make it after all."

For Shane Danielsen, writing for indieWIRE, "it played less like The Red Shoes — as everyone kept insisting — than another Archers film, The Tales of Hoffmann. Crossed, naturally, with Repulsion and Single White Female. The result was overblown, melodramatic, faintly ludicrous — and as such, perfectly congruent with the milieu it was depicting."

Updates, 9/3: "Barbara Hershey as Nina's smothering mother doesn't do the film any favours in the credibility stakes," argues David Jenkins in Time Out London. "[I]nitially all smiles, hugs and words of encouragement, just when Aronofsky needs more ammo withn which to bombard his lead, she mutates into a crazed, over-protective harridan who resents her daughter's spell in the limelight. But, quibbles with its tenuous connection to reality aside, this is a thrilling slab of old-fashioned Hollywood pulp. And for those who like a flutter, Portman seems like a surefire early bet for a Best Actress Oscar nom."

Viewing (2'01"). A Telegraph interview with Portman.

Yes, it's been "warmly received," but for the Voice's J Hoberman, it's also "borderline risible... Although a generic horror film (The Red Shoes remade as homage to Dario Argento or Brian De Palma), Black Swan is also recognizably Aronofskyian: This epic actualization myth parallels The Wrestler's blood-soaked, self-mutilating histrionics so closely that it could be described as 'Mickey Rourke in a tutu.' Black Swan is also an acting vehicle, but rather than fueling Rourke's comeback it's fueled by Natalie Portman's near-excruciating anxiety in the role of a dogged, delusional little prima ballerina."

Update, 9/5: "Me, I'm of two minds about a movie that wants to be a nail-ripping thriller and a statement on an artist's unholy communion with her role," writes Time's Richard Corliss. "It's reminiscent of older, better movies: the late-40s backstage dramas A Double Life (Ronald Colman plays Othello, becomes fatally jealous of his actress ex-wife) and the classic ballet melodrama The Red Shoes; and of films about tender, troubled psyches in the films — I won't say which ones — of Roman Polanski, Dario Argento, Brian De Palma, David Cronenberg and David Fincher. Black Swan also takes a view of women that might kindly be described as old-fashioned.... Portman can also look utterly stranded on screen — bereft of an actor's most rudimentary tools — in, say, Amos Gitai's Free Zone, or as George Lucas's lamentable Queen Padme. Her turn in Black Swan, if it truly impresses American moviegoers, won't be the sort that caps the steady maturing of a gifted actress. It will have the shock of the new. That helps explain the outbreak of rapture among some critics here; for Black Swan is, among other things, a document of Portman's obsessive dedication to give a performance beyond what is expected of her — and, no less, Aronofsky's need to wring every raw feeling from his leading lady. That relationship is up on screen too: of a man trying to get a brilliant performance out of a young woman by dominating and manipulating her."

Updates, 9/6: "Black Swan has something of the secret mental nightmare of Repulsion," writes the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, "and its oppressive apartment interiors and looming disorientated close-ups suggest the world of Rosemary's Baby, particularly the idea that an approaching evil is being simultaneously feared and welcomed."

For In Contention's Kristopher Tapley, this is "the perfect marriage of Aronofsky's past work, containing all of the paranoia of Pi, the identity concerns of Requiem for a Dream, the sense of inevitability apparent in The Fountain and the professional obsession of The Wrestler."

FirstShowing's Alex Billington: "What I think Aronofsky has achieved with Black Swan is a mesmerizing and utterly brilliant fusion of two performance mediums — theater (specifically ballet) and film — in an extraordinary way that I believe we've never seen before."

For Hitfix's Gregory Ellwood, this is a "potential classic."

AO Scott from Telluride for the New York Times: "[I]ntensity — a swirl of dread, suspense and almost tactile beauty, brought to fever pitch by Clint Mansell's Tchaikovsky-on-steroids score — is certainly what Black Swan delivers. It also builds a gaudy, gothic frame around a disturbing and virtuosic central performance, as Ms Portman travels the spectrum from meek to monstrous and discovers a terrifying new variation on the old idea of suffering for art."

Updates, 9/11: Scott Tobias at the AV Club: "Black Swan sets up stark, occasionally silly parallels between the story of Swan Lake and the psychodrama unfolding off stage, with a special emphasis on ballet's punishing toll on the body and Portman's Piano Teacher-esque infantilization and repression at home. It goes way over the top and stays there, with little of The Wrestler's leavening humor, but damned if Aronofsky's operatic style didn't do a number on me. His film coils tight and snaps hard."

"Black Swan once again makes the argument that when it comes to the young generation of US film talent Aronofsky stands head and shoulders over the vast majority of his peers," finds Todd Brown at Twitch. "Simply astounding."

Update, 9/12: "Closer to The Piano Teacher than The Red Shoes," writes Fernando F Croce at the House Next Door, "it's a half-exhilarating, half-forehead-smacking fairy tale about cruel aesthetes and the disintegrating/exultant pull of darkness, opening in the realm of dream and proceeding through a gleeful maelstrom of mirror shots, pirouetting camerawork, and corporeal punishment (toes, tendons, and cuticles get plenty of extreme close-up attention).... 'Ready to be thrown to the wolves?' the imperious maestro (an uproarious Vincent Cassel) asks his latest marionette; Aronofsky, Grand Guignol camera in hand, is sure ready to film it."

Updates, 9/13: "[O]ne of the most buzzed-about movies of the fall almost wasn't a movie at all." Steven Zeitchik gets the back story from Aronofsky for the Los Angeles Times.

"It's a daring movie even for Aronofsky, which exactly proves his point," writes Boyd van Hoeij here in The Daily Notebook.

Update, 9/16: Anne Thompson interviews Aronofsky.

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