Saturday, July 24, 2010

Black Swan ballet thriller

Natalie Portman as Nina in Black Swan

By Susan Wloszczyna

First look: Ballet thriller 'Black Swan' from Darren Aronofsky

The Venice International Film Festival apparently can't get enough of Darren Aronofsky, even if he has switched his focus from muscle-bound men to dainty dancers.

The director took home a Golden Lion, the event's top prize, for The Wrestler in 2008. Now he has been given the honor of opening this year's 11-day event on Sept. 1 with Black Swan, a ballet-themed thriller due in late fall. "The cast and crew of Black Swan are both excited and humbled by the selection committee's invitation," Aronofsky said in a press announcement. "It is an honor to walk the great red carpet on the Lido, and we are excited to premiere our film to the wonderful audiences in Venice."

The dark tale with psychological twists stars Natalie Portman as Nina, a technically brilliant ballerina whose life takes some strange turns after being picked as the lead in a New York City production of Swan Lake. Pressures mount as her overbearing mother (Barbara Hershey) pushes her to succeed and her manipulative dance master (Vincent Cassel) commands her to be more seductive and loose in her performance.

Complicating matters is the arrival of Lily (Mila Kunis), a sultry dancer who exhibits all the innate ease and sexuality that Nina lacks. Nina begins to fixate on the newcomer as the two forge an unusual relationship. "The worldwide attention given to the Venice film festival provides an exciting launch for Black Swan," says Nancy Utley, president of Fox Searchlight. "We are very proud of our collaboration with Darren."

After its premiere in Venice, The Wrestler went on to awards season glory, earning actor Mickey Rourke his first Oscar nomination and a chance at a career comeback. Fox Searchlight, which bought The Wrestler at the Toronto film festival after its Venice success, has similar hopes for Black Swan— and especially for Portman, who was nominated for an Oscar for her supporting part in 2004's Closer.

As the actress tells USA TODAY about her troubled Nina: "The character was very interesting to play, always challenging and surprising. The fact that I had spent so much time with the idea — Darren and I started discussing doing the film in 2000 — allowed it to marinate a little before we shot."

By Susan Wloszczyna

'Black Swan' stars step deftly into roles

PURCHASE, N.Y. — Four ballerinas bedecked with white feathers crisscross their arms in front of their bodies and hold hands as they await their music cue, a refrain from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake. They repeat to exhaustion the rapid-fire footwork and angular poses that are intentionally more funky than refined.

Soon, they will be freed from the rigors of moviemaking. This is the final week for filming dance scenes in the psychological thriller Black Swan, opening later this year.

Something even funkier is going on in the wings, however, as tulle-draped actress Mila Kunis flirts with a costumed Benjamin Millepied, the popular member of the New York City Ballet who is making his movie debut as an actor and a choreographer. Much to his surprise, she follows director's orders and suddenly grabs his crotch, causing the crew to
explode in laughter.

After a break, Natalie Portman re-enacts a similar scene opposite Millepied, her real-life beau, but minus the brazen groping. Meanwhile, Vincent Cassel as the dance master takes his place before the camera and proclaims, "Your mission is destruction through seduction."

Later on, Portman's double will swirl about the stage while gingerly using a syringe to allow red liquid to dribble onto her shoes. "Beware of the blood," the extras are instructed.

During a break at Purchase College, State University of New York's Performing Arts Center, director Darren Aronofsky compares the splattery sequence in Black Swan with a gruesome scene in his previous film, The Wrestler, when Mickey Rourke is attacked by a staple-gun-wielding rival. He stresses that his gothic tale with hints of Hitchcock is several grand jetés away from such ballet-themed soap operas as 1977's The Turning Point. "Maybe only The Red Shoes had a realistic point of view of this unique world," Aronofsky says of the 1948 classic. "It captured the human drama and the sacrifice."

He became interested in ballet when his sister studied dance at the Manhattan arts school featured in Fame. The chance to make a film on the subject came after he hired several writers to rework a screenplay, The Understudy, that originally dealt with off-Broadway actors. "It had a little bit of in it, a little bit of Polanski's The Tenant and a little bit of Dostoevsky's The Double."

He has seen countless productions of Swan Lake. "The original script had this idea of being haunted by a double — and Swan Lake is about a double, a White Swan and a Black Swan — so the connections started to come alive."

Authenticity was key. Says Portman: "I took ballet until I was 13. I had always hoped to do a dance film. It is the most emotional form of expression." She started training six months before shooting with a veteran of the New York City Ballet and also did toning and swimming exercises to attain a dancer's form.

Aronofsky is proud of Portman's achievement. "Most of these women who are here started dancing when they were 4, 5 or 6 years old. Their bodies are shaped differently because they started so young. She was able to pull it off. Except for the wide shots when she has to be en pointe for a real long time, it's Natalie on screen. I haven't used her double a lot."

Kunis, who won Jason Segel's heart in 2008’s, had no background in dance. For months, she trained seven days a week for four hours a day.

The workout wasn't the hardest part, however. She also had to stand, walk and hold her body just so. "Look at these girls," she says about the graceful members of the Pennsylvania Ballet who act as the corps. "It takes them 10 years at least to look like a ballerina. I had six months before production started."

She also dropped 17 pounds from her already slim frame. Says her director: "Mila's arms are incredible. Her arms are better than her body double's."

The Internet has been abuzz for months about how she and close friend Portman are required to share some steamy moments together after a copy of the script hit the Web.

Kunis insists that the erotic scenes are not gratuitous. "Anything sexual in this film is not there for the sake of being sexual. I think people are hoping it's like two girls making out and pillow fighting. It's not smut."

Personal comment: You have to wonder about photographing a ballet dancer and then cutting off her feet. Otherwise it’s a lovely image! I’ll be charitable (this time) and put it down to lack of space in the newspaper.


  1. I, for one, would like to see how this movie pulls off. Have you heard when it'll be released domestically?

  2. Hi Eric. I thought I remembered reading somewhere that they were shooting for domestic release in November, but I can’t find that anywhere now and at they have no listing for it so far.


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Powys , Wales, United Kingdom
I'm a classically trained dancer and SAB grad. A Dance Captain and go-to girl overseeing high-roller entertainment for a major casino/resort