‘Black Swan’ and a Serious Standing Ovation

Darren Aronofsky's dark psychological thriller set in the world of ballet has set people buzzing

Fresh off a raw personal story about a wrestler, director Darren Aronofsky has put his shoulder behind a psychological thriller set in the world of ballet.

“Black Swan,” which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on Monday night, has set off all manner of Oscar buzz with its emotional early screenings.

Why?

Natalie Portman, in the first role in years where she shows real range of acting depth, plays Nina, a dancer at a New York City Ballet-style company where she yearns for and wins the role of the Swan Queen in Swan Lake.

But she is plagued by jealousy around her in dancers both younger (Mila Kunic) and older (Winona Ryder). Vincent Cassel brilliantly plays a manipulative artistic director a la George Ballanchine, while Portman seeks to defend her turf  even as she struggles to unleash the emotions that will allow her to dance the black swan to Cassel’s satisfaction.

Aronofsky succeeds in making you feel every tense breath, every jangling nerve; his gift for intensifying emotion through music and camera positioning seems to improve with every film. Critics will probably recall Hitchcock in ‘Black Swan’s’ claustrophobic interiors and faux thrills, careering just behind real ones.

Meanwhile, the lovely Portman credibly dances in the film, while Cassel seduces and rejects, seduces and rejects in a classic power game with his dancers.

There was a thunderous standing ovation.

Why? I can’t remember the last time anyone made a movie about ballet. This is not merely a movie about ballet, but I can easily imagine all the pitch meetings at which approximately five minutes in, some executive probably said:

“Does it have to be ballet?”

Fox Searchlight eventually took a chance, which appears to have mightily paid off.

After the screening, a jubilant group led by Aronofsky lingered for many long minutes on the landing high up in Roy Thomson Hall.

Aronofsky had reason to gloat. “Every singe studio turned this down,” he said, observing that his producer and lawyer drew up two separate contracts that turned to dust in Hollywood before making a deal with Fox Searchlight.

“I thought this movie would be easier,” he said. “This time I had a movie star. But everyone turned it down. There is no money for independent film.”

The film cost a mere $13.5 million, he said. Right now, that’s looking like a bargain.

(Photos by Sharon Waxman)