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'Black Swan's' risks pay off

A horror movie set in the world of ballet? Small budget? Darren Aronofsky? It's an unlikely recipe for a smash hit, and its success is surprising even its makers.

January 16, 2011|By Steven Zeitchik and Ben Fritz, Los Angeles Times
  • "Black Swan" star Natalie Portman has emerged as a front-runner for this year's lead actress Oscar. The awards parade for the film could begin at Sunday night's Golden Globes ceremony, where Portman, co-star Mila Kunis and director Darren Aronofsky are all nominated, as is the movie (for best dramatic picture).
"Black Swan" star Natalie Portman has emerged as a front-runner… (Niko Tavernise / Fox Searchlight )

It was just before 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night in Los Feliz, and the assorted filmgoers that had gathered to see "Black Swan" sounded as if they were attending different movies.

Nas Moinee, 23, had come for the dancing and the costumes and was dreading the film's scares. Peter Garcia, a longhaired, ball-cap-wearing 12-year-old attending with his mother, said he was looking forward to jumping out of his seat at the movie's spooky scenes.

And while Shawna Joplin, 28, had bought a ticket because she heard about a bravura performance from star Natalie Portman, her companion, Greg Richmond, 32, came because his friends told him about an explicit sex scene between Portman and costar Mila Kunis. "This movie's about ballet?" he said. He didn't seem to be joking.

"Black Swan" is the surprise breakout of the movie awards season, sneaking up on the Hollywood establishment like "Slumdog Millionaire" did two years ago or "The Blind Side" did last year. Produced for a paltry $13 million, the R-rated Fox Searchlight release already has sold $64 million worth of tickets and is expected to hit at least $100 million in North America alone (the film has not yet opened internationally). Last week, "Black Swan" was the No. 2 movie in the country, outgrossing "Little Fockers" and "Tron: Legacy" — movies with far more advertising and playing in substantially more theaters.

Portman, who studied ballet for more than a year to prepare for the role, has emerged as a front-runner for this year's lead actress Oscar. The awards parade for "Black Swan" could begin at Sunday night's Golden Globes ceremony, where Portman, Kunis and director Darren Aronofsky are each nominated, as is the movie (for best dramatic picture).

At a time when Hollywood studios are fixated on cookie-cutter movies with built-in audience recognition, "Black Swan" is a hit from the entirely opposite direction: dream-like, ambiguous and even polarizing (The Times' Kenneth Turan called it "high-art trash"; Chicago-based critic Roger Ebert praised its "passionate intensity, gloriously and darkly absurd"). Depending on whom you ask, the movie is a psychological thriller, a character study of a young woman coming unglued, a portrait of the rarefied world of ballet or a reality-bending horror film. At one publicity screening, Aronofsky asked the audience to raise their hands and vote on whether they regarded it as an art-house film or a genre movie. The tally was 50-50.

"I think this is the kind of movie that's so open to interpretation that a lot of how you view it will depend on what kind of baggage you come into it with," Mark Heyman, the "Black Swan" screenwriter and Aronofsky's producing partner, said in an interview, adding that after one screening a woman speculated to him that it was a Christian allegory.

Even Portman said she wasn't sure exactly what kind of movie "Black Swan" would turn out to be. During production "I didn't know I was making a horror movie," she said at recent publicity screening, perhaps only half-kidding.

Aronofsky's film is the story of an insecure and almost childlike ballerina, Nina Sayers (Portman), starring in a high-profile New York performance of "Swan Lake." Pressured by her live-in mother ( Barbara Hershey) and the ballet company director (French actor Vincent Cassel), she begins experiencing what may or may not be delusions, including her fear that fellow dancer Lily (Kunis) is out to sabotage her. In an increasingly baroque series of scenes (including the much-discussed sexual encounter between the two ballerinas) the movie builds to a bloody but ambiguous climax set to a thunderous rendition of Tchaikovsky's score.

In a season when even dramas such as "The King's Speech" and "The Fighter" are leavened with humor, "Black Swan" stands out for its unrelenting intensity. "Darren Aronofsky is making melodrama cool again," said Claudia Lewis, president of production at studio Fox Searchlight.

It even raises the question of whether there's a larger audience for original, unpredictable films than the studios may believe.

But parsing the film's success has proved difficult even for the people involved in it.

"I get the teenage girl part of the audience because it's a coming-of-age story about a girl becoming a woman," Aronofsky said. "But older people are seeing it too. My mother lives in a development in West Palm Beach and she brought 40 people from the development to see it and they loved it. I don't know if even I understand it."

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