So what is Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan — the Cinema Arts Festival Houston showcased film set to screen 4:15 p.m. Sunday at the Edwards Greenway Palace Stadium — all about?
Well, like Pi, his 1998 breakthrough indie feature, Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a drama about an obsessive protagonist poised on the brink of madness while pursuing perfection. Like Requiem for a Dream (2000), the director's critically acclaimed sophomore effort, Aronofsky’s latest film focuses on the desperate frenzy of a character whose fantasies are intruding on reality. And like The Wrestler (2008), his sentimentally gritty tale of a has-been grappler who repeatedly returns to the ring, Aronofsky’s much buzzed-about drama about a ballerina who gets in touch with her dark side is the story of an artist who quite literally suffers for the sake of art.
“Of course,” Aronofsky admits, “the big difference — the really interesting difference — is that one is about the highest art on the planet, and the other is about the lowest. In fact, most people wouldn’t even call wrestling an art. And yet the people who do that, the athletes who do that, sacrifice their physicality for their art. So I think there’s definitely a connection between those two films.”
Actually, one could argue that all of Aronofsky’s films are connected, in that each one — even The Fountain (2006), the Brooklyn-born auteur’s phantasmagorical romance — is about a kind of madness. In the case of Black Swan, the discombobulation begins when Nina Sayers, a sexually repressed ballerina played by Natalie Portman, lands the plum assignment of performing the lead role in a New York City dance company’s production of Swan Lake.
Relentlessly driven by her ex-ballerina mother (Barbara Hershey) and her own barely contained demons, Nina pushes herself to physical and emotional extremes to prepare for the role.
But her efforts are not quite enough for choreographer Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), who insists that Nina, a dead-solid perfect choice to convey the innocence of the White Swan, must somehow also find a way to master the other side of the role. That is, she must convey the dark sensuality of the Black Swan as persuasively and expressively as… as… well, as Lily (Mila Kunis), a new dancer with the troupe who’s trying maybe a little too hard to be Nina’s new best friend.
CultureMap [Joe Leydon]: Were there some days you were less worried about realism than others?
Darren Aronofsky: Well, I just think that, every day, we tried to get as much as we could. I mean, sure, there are certain scenes that are less real, and there are some that are more arch, and it’s pretty obvious. But in general, we just tried to create as much a range of options as possible, so that we could play around in the editing room after we figured out exactly what was going on. The goal was just to get the actor to give you each direction clearly and truthfully.
CM: OK, in this Internet Era, it’s practically impossible for anyone to walk into any movie without knowing a lot — maybe too much — about it. But in a more perfect world: What are the only things that people would know about Black Swan before they’d actually see it?
DA: I think it should be a point that people know that it’s a thriller, and that there are scary elements. And that it’s original and different. Because I think people have gotten used to seeing the same thing over and over again. And I think that people who aren’t game for something that’s a little bit outside the box may have a hard time with it. And I think you’ve got to go into it with an adventurous spirit.
CM: Are you concerned that because there’s been so much advance buzz about a certain scene in the film — an intimate scene involving Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman — people may be expecting a movie that is rather more, well, salacious than this one really is?
DA: Oh, I don’t know. I think it’s a very sexy film. And a lot of different journalists and critics who have seen the film at this point and talked with me about it say, “How does it feel to have made the most erotic film in America for the last few years?"
Which kind of blew me away. When people are saying that, I say, “Do you really think that?” I mean, I know everyone knows about the kiss between the two beautiful women in the film. But I think there’s a lot more that’s going on that’s sexier and as intense, if not more intense. I think the film is kind of filled with a lot of that — it’s a lot about sexuality. It’s about a woman who’s trying to discover her sexuality, and unlock it. So I think it’s there throughout the film.
CM: In addition to the sexually charged scenes, there are highly dramatic, extremely stylized scenes in Black Swan that present daunting challenges — to folks on both sides of the camera. One wrong move, one false note, and you run the risk of having the audience laugh out loud.
DA: Yes, but I think I’ve always walked that tightrope. If you think about it, all my films are on the edge of believability. So I walk that edge all the time. I imagine there were things that we photographed that were over the edge at times.
But you just make sure that you’re covered and that you can pull back if you need to. But this film really goes to great heights to push reality. Like ballet itself. If you ever see ballet, you’ll see that ballet is really over the top. And extreme. And the stories are really, really overwrought and gothic. They’re like great fairy tales. And so we wanted to push the level of what people would accept. And push it right to the edge.
CM: The underlying theme of Black Swan is the danger of pursuing of perfection. How does that theme speak to you?
DA: I think perfection is an illusion. And life is about the mistakes. If you have high aspirations, and you’re trying to do something that’s cohesive — usually the best things happen when things go slightly wrong.