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Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ a feature film of a different feather

 TORONTO With its supernatural thrills, character subtleties and ballet-world backdrop, “Black Swan” is one of the more audacious combinations of genres in contemporary American cinema.

Just don’t tell that to the man who created it.

“To me it doesn’t feel more ambitious than my previous movies,” said director Darren Aronofsky with twinkling amusement. “I’ve been hearing that from a few people, and I guess it’s flattering. I just don’t know if I see it.”

There are many, however, who might. The dark psychological film from the American auteur (“The Wrestler,” “Requiem for a Dream”) stars Natalie Portman as Nina, a sheltered and repressed ballerina. An imperious dance director (Vincent Cassel) gives Nina the role of a lifetime the lead part in a major New York City production of “Swan Lake.”
Darren Aronofsky with actor Mickey Rourke on the set of “The Wrestler.”
Darren Aronofsky with actor Mickey Rourke on the set of “The Wrestler.”

But Nina soon finds herself dogged by an upstart rival, Lily (Mila Kunis), who may be after Nina’s job or, in mind-bending Aronofsky fashion, may simply be a figment of Nina’s imagination.

The film’s unusual genre combinations have given pause to some reviewers but “Black Swan” is nevertheless turning into a cultural event, despite a release date 10 weeks away.

After a trailer that drummed up 1.3 million views on YouTube (nearly unheard of for an art-house movie) and well-received screenings at the Venice and Telluride Film Festivals, the film this week arrived at the preeminent North American showcase for fall movies, the Toronto International Film Festival, where it premiered to the public Monday night.

Much of the curiosity stems from audiences eager to discover just what exactly the movie is about. It won’t be black and white for them. There are mystical touches Nina in fleeting moments appears to have feathery skin and an elongated neck, which suggest she is turning into a swan. Still, there are also more conventional plot elements, such as an overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) and a perfectionist director (Cassel).

Aronofsky’s preoccupation with broken-down body parts are clearly evident in the film. So is a much-ballyhooed lesbian love scene, as well as the trappings of a haunted-house horror picture. “It’s a Polanski movie, and then it becomes a Dario Argento movie,” said Cassel. “And maybe a little bit of David Cronenberg too.”

There are also unmistakable parallels between “Black Swan” and Aronofsky’s previous “The Wrestler,” particularly as it relates to the toll exacted by a life of performance. (“Black Swan” screenwriter and Aronofsky producing partner Mark Heyman said the two were conceived as “companion pieces.”)

Yet one of the most buzzed-about movies of the fall almost wasn’t a movie at all.

Aronofsky had been hoping to make a ballet-themed film for nearly a decade, inspired by his sister’s youthful experience with ballet. “I didn’t really understand it,” he said, “which is what maybe made me a good person to translate it.” So years ago, he became involved with a script owned by longtime producer Mike Medavoy called “The Understudy,” a murder-mystery set in the theater world, in the hopes that the ballet element could be woven into it. The project was set up at Universal. But after several drafts, the film hit the skids.

In the meantime, the director had seen “Swan Lake.” “When I saw the story of the black swan and the white swan, I decided to throw everything away and connect all the characters and myths to ‘Swan Lake,’” Aronofsky said. “The credits should really say, ‘Co-written by Tchaikovsky.’”

Aronofsky said that while he didn’t think in terms of genres, he did have one explicit goal: “We wanted to make a movie that scared the ... out of people.”

Portman too threw herself into the effort. After discussing a ballet project with Aronofsky for years, she came aboard in early 2009. She flew a trainer to the set of her comedy “Your Highness” in Britain last summer. “I think she was playing the role long before we were even in pre-production,” said Scott Franklin with the director’s New York production company Protoza Pictures and a producer on “Black Swan.”

Still, there were serious doubts that the movie would move forward, as financiers came in, then dropped out. The budget was worked out, then the project stalled, then the budget reworked. (The movie ended up with a budget of about $13 million, inconceivably low given the stars and the required effects.)

The end point is a movie that looks like a flashy genre picture even as it traffics in the ambiguities and moods of the art-house world. Whether that hybrid can work with audiences remains a question. “The Wrestler” made $26 million in the U.S.

Then again, there wasn’t nearly as much riding on “The Wrestler.” “It was nicer when we were the secret underdog.” Franklin said, “Now we’re coming in with a bull’s-eye on our chest.”

By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)
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