“Sophisticated” New York metro area audiences are flipping out at Darren Aronofsky’s intense and teasing film about a star ballerina having a nervous breakdown, so who knows what is going on in theaters out in the boondocks?
Audience response is only going to get more interesting as “Black Swan” gathers Oscar nominations and a probable best actress win for its star Natalie Portman.
When I saw the picture a few weeks ago — before its national release — it was clear that half the audience was thrilled by the movie’s wild depiction of mental collapse and artistic self-destruction, and the other half viewed Aronofsky’s dark portrait of the ballet world as a form of cultural desecration.
The haters grasped at what they felt were nutty factual inaccuracies in the movie — claiming no rising New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre star would still be living with a mother as demented as the one played by Barbara Hershey or would still be sleeping in her pink girlhood bedroom.
It became clear in the hubbub after the screening that part of the audience expected “Black Swan” to be a love letter to the dedication and talent of the young women who devote the early years of their lives to ballet — they wanted something inspirational and refined on the order of “The Turning Point.”
They didn’t appear to get the idea that “Black Swan” isn’t meant to be any more realistic than Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” or Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher” — two earlier, hallucinatory studies of beautiful, talented women falling to pieces emotionally.
Natalie Portman gives a performance so highly strung — and so brilliant — that she deserves kudos for being willing to turn off as many people as she turns on. The actress goes all the way with the part, just as Catherine Deneuve did in “Repulsion” and Isabelle Huppert did in “The Piano Teacher.”
Aronofsky seems to have a special gift for tapping into a whole new emotional vein in performers we think we know very well. Portman’s frighteningly intense characterization is reminiscent of Ellen Burstyn’s equally disturbing work as the drug and TV addict in Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.”
So many Hollywood movies appear to be designed to lull the audience like a narcotic that it is thrilling to see an American director and star actress who are willing to shake things up.