Standing in line for the Telluride Film Festival screening for Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" today, I was introduced to a distribution exec from a major independent studio who was extremely curious about the new Fox Searchlight thriller. It turns out his company had come "this close" to financing the film, but backed out because of concerns over the tone of the project. If mishandled, the story of a young ballet dancer who begins to go through a bizarre psychological journey after winning the coveted lead role in "Swan Lake" could have become a campy mess. The world behind the ballet curtain is not always subtle and as Aronofsky noted before the showing, he was surprised how hard it was to get the picture made after his success with "The Wrestler" as well as having Natalie Portman on board. After the film's positive reception both in Venice and Telluride, a number of distributors may have wished they taken a chance on this potential classic.
"Swan" centers on Nina (Portman), a core dancer of what appears to be the New York City Ballet (it's never stated but she walks to Lincoln Center every day so assume away) who is hoping for a bigger spotlight after four years with the company. As the season begins, Thomas, the company director (Vincent Cassel), announces that the troupe's long time star (Winona Ryder) will be retiring and a new Prima ballerina will be chosen for the upcoming production of "Lake." A show which he promises will be "visceral" and unexpected. Also new to the scene is Lilly (Mila Kunis), a dancer who just joined the company from San Francisco. To Nina's surprise, and perhaps her fellow dancers, Thomas picks her for the coveted role even though he has reservations about her ability to pull off the dual nature of the part.
There is a humorous moment during a scene midway through the picture where two straight guys flirt with Nina and Lily in a bar and unintentionally reveal just how uninterested they are in the art form, but Aronofsky and screenwriters Mark Heyman and Andrew Heinz make conveying the thematic resonance of "Swan Lake" integral to the story. So, if you've always been bailey shy, not to fear. "Lake" won't turn you off (quite the contrary, but more on that later). As the ballet's lead, Nina has to play both the delicate and fragile White Swan and the dark and seductive Black Swan. From the first five minutes of the picture it's clear Nina is nothing like the latter and she slowly begins to crumble (or so we think) under the pressure. Lily is seemingly an accomplice in twisting Nina's increasing conspiracy theories, but the viewer also realizes much of this could be in the sheltered dancer's head.
As the film progresses and opening night draws near, Nina's world becomes more and more intense and she begins to have strange visions of a darker version of herself in the streets and even in the mirror looking back at her. She even reaches a point, as evidenced in the trailer, where she believe she's pulled a black feather out of her back -- ie, she's becoming a literal black swan. Aronofsky pulls these moments off subtly as he can, but is mostly assisted by Portman's non-stop on edge performance.
Initially, many of the elements in the picture seem all too familiar and you feel the psychological elements teetering on a line of "been there, done that." However, it's the second half of the picture, and most notably, "Swan's" riveting third act which will have audiences guessing just what is going to happen to our heroine. The finale pulls all the threads together in a beautifully realized, shot and edited number of sequences.
The picture is also unexpectedly erotic. Nina's character experiences some lesbian fantasies as she tries to reach a more lustful side of her personality. And yes, there is some girl-on-girl action between Kunis and Portman, but calm down gents, it's actually is a key revelation in the storyline (but not what you think).
Portman simply carries the picture through it's toughest moments with an intense turn. What's most impressive is how strong her performance is while she's in the middle of difficult choreography as Nina (to this eye, Portman completely dances the part herself). If Portman doesn't land an Oscar nomination for the role, it's simply a crime. 'Nuff said.
As for the rest of the cast, Kunis is more than fine as Lily, bringing some good-natured comic relief to what can be a catty creative environment. As Erica's mom, Barbra Hershey is subtly creepy as the backstage mother who may have some of her own obsessive issues to deal with. Cassel is suitable in the film's only true disappointment, a ballet director who is an arrogant jerk and may or may not be sleeping with a number of his core dancers (yes, we've seen that before).
Technically, cinematographer Matthew Libatique has photographed some of the most stunning ballet sequences this pundit has ever seen on the big screen -- achieving Nina's point of view in an absolutely mesmerizing fashion. And those sequences also deserves a nod to editor Andrew Weisblum. Kudos to great make up work by Marjorie Durand and Michael Marino's teams as well.
In regards to awards season, whether "Swan" get make the final ten nominees for best picture remains to be seen. The film may be too intense for some viewers, but this prognosticator feels it should absolutely play to female members of the Academy and Portman should feel the SAG member love which means it's got a legit shot. In any event, for fans of daring cinema, "Black Swan" is one to wait for. It's that good.
"Black Swan" opens in limited release on Dec. 1.
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