The bloody bal­let

Dar­ren Aronof­sky’s Black Swan, set in the fiercely com­pet­i­tive world of bal­let, swings be­tween Cro­nen­ber­gian body horror and sleep­over thriller. It could be his mas­ter­piece. The di­rec­tor talks Polan­ski, Port­man and pun­ish­ing pirou­ettes with Tara Brady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Cover Story -

“I couldn’t be­lieve the amount of blood in­volved. When you watch bal­let it looks in­cred­i­bly ef­fort­less. But that’s only be­cause you’re watch­ing ath­letes who have been do­ing this for 20 years”

IN COM­MON with fel­low au­teurs Spike Jonze and PT An­der­son, even in the big leagues you can spot Dar­ren Aronof­sky as a grad­u­ate from the in­diesphere. Neat, wiry, and sport­ing a thin hip­ster mous­tache, his unas­sum­ing ap­parel couldn’t look less Hollywood. He speaks ac­cord­ingly, with an earnest­ness ill­suited to stu­dio sock pup­petry.

“The magic of cin­ema is that you can go on a trip with a 55-year-old dy­ing wrestler or you can go on a trip with a twen­tysome­thing am­bi­tious dancer, and if it’s done with an hon­est, emo­tional ap­proach then hope­fully the au­di­ence will feel for them,” says the di­rec­tor. “I know film-mak­ers who say that you shouldn’t di­rect a black film if you’re not black. I think it’s prob­a­bly more dif­fi­cult now to make some­thing about a dif­fer­ent cul­ture than it was 200 or 300 years ago. But we’re all peo­ple. The dif­fer­ences are slight. And for me, dif­fer­ence is fun.”

He ought to know. Aronof­sky may have ar­rived in the same post-Tarantino flurry that en­sured global the­atri­cal dis­tri­bu­tion for ev­ery­body from Kevin Smith to Todd Haynes, but his unique tal­ents and pre­oc­cu­pa­tions have al­ways set him apart from the crowd. Back in 1996, in a then thriv­ing, in­no­va­tive in­de­pen­dent sec­tor, noth­ing came close to outsmart­ing the Has­sidic math­e­mat­i­cal con­spir­a­cies of Aronof­sky’s wildly in­ven­tive de­but, Pi. The di­rec­tor’s sec­ond, a wrench­ing adap­ta­tion of Hu­bert Selby jnr’s ad­dic­tion mem­oir Re­quiem for a Dream, left lit­tle room for doubt: Dar­ren Aronof­sky was the new Ro­man Polan­ski.

“Polan­ski has ab­so­lutely al­ways been a huge in­flu­ence,” says Aronof­sky. “I love what he has done with sub­jec­tive film-mak­ing. I think I run with what he’s done and I’ve tried to take it in my own di­rec­tion, but he’s the mas­ter.”

Aronof­sky’s own di­rec­tion in­volves an an­gu­lar, an­thro­po­log­i­cal al­cove of his own de­vis­ing. In the way of roads less trav­elled, his has not al­ways been the eas­i­est ca­reer. Al­though var­i­ously linked with any num­ber of high-pro­file gigs at the ma­jors – Su­per­man, Robo­cop, a Jac­que­line Kennedy biopic – none of these projects have quite panned out. In 2000, he was hired by Warner Broth­ers to de­velop Bat­man: Year Zero for the screen. He had al­ready ap­proached Chris­tian Bale to play the lead when he aban­doned the project in favour of The Foun­tain, a time-trav­el­ling ro­man­tic epic. The lat­ter took six years to make and was a com­mer­cial fail­ure; the for­mer be­came Christo­pher Nolan’s Bat­man Be­gins.

“It’s not on pur­pose,” says Aronof­sky. “I’d love to make a movie that other peo­ple want to make. I spend so much time and en­ergy find­ing the one com­pany that’ll make what­ever movie I’m do­ing. It’d be in­ter­est­ing to skip that part.”

Still, with only five fea­tures un­der his belt, the 41-year-old’s ca­pac­ity to imag­ine worlds and recre­ate sub­cul­tures has al­ready touched on ev­ery­thing from con­quis­ta­dors to wrestling.

“Be­ing a film-maker is a great gift to your­self,” he says. “Ev­ery cou­ple of years you gain an­other PhD in what­ever world you want. You get to com­pletely dis­ap­pear into a topic. I love unique worlds. I think the main rea­son we go to the cin­ema is to see some­thing we haven’t seen be­fore. When I did The Wrestler ev­ery­one thought I was out of my mind do­ing a sports movie. But I went to some of those wrestling shows and got a peek be­hind the cur­tain and thought it was wild and com­pelling. It’s this al­most sci-fi world of huge biomani-pu­lated, pierced, tat­tooed bod­ies. The fact that so many peo­ple sub­scribe to a sub­cul­ture like that says some­thing about all of us.”

The Sun­dance kids have al­ways strived af­ter such novel cul­tural nooks, but with Aronof­sky sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery is a given. A gifted kid from Brook­lyn, he was still at high school when he was ac­cepted, Doogie Howser­style, into an in­ter­na­tional field bi­ol­ogy pro­gramme. “I still re­mem­ber the ti­tles. I went with them to Kenya and stud­ied wa­ter strate­gies. I went to Alaska and stud­ied thermo reg­u­la­tion in har­bour seals. I learned the most rig­or­ous sci­en­tific method. Then I got to Har­vard, went to a sci­ence class and re­alised I couldn’t com­pete. I started read­ing a lot of the­ory – mostly dead white guys from the 17th cen­tury – and de­cided that wasn’t for me ei­ther. And my room-mate would get high and sit around mak­ing movies be­cause he was an an­i­ma­tor. So I thought ‘ Huh, you can ac­tu­ally get through col­lege do­ing that. That’s where I’ve been go­ing wrong’.”

Un­like his con­tem­po­raries, who mostly whiled away their for­ma­tive years in grindhouse the­atres and video stores, Aronof­sky was not, he says, any kind of film buff be­fore it be­came an eas­ier third-level ed­u­ca­tion op­tion.

“I’m not one of those peo­ple who grew up sur­rounded by art films,” he says. “I mean I grew up in the ’ 70s when Amer­i­can film hap­pened to mean Taxi Driver and The

God­fa­ther, so I had some idea what cin­ema should look like. But I re­mem­ber even as a fresh­man at col­lege driv­ing down to New Or­leans with some friends to stay in this house with a video con­sole and one VHS, which was La Dolce Vita. I was the group say­ing ‘Fuck that, it’s a black and white film with sub­ti­tles’. I played Zelda all week­end. It took me an­other year to find out what La

Dolce Vita was and that it’s life-chang­ing.” His late blos­som­ing as a cineaste does not ap­pear to have hin­dered his devel­op­ment as a film-maker. Next week sees the re­lease of

Black Swan, Aronof­sky’s fifth film as wri­ter­di­rec­tor and the crit­i­cal sen­sa­tion of the sea­son. Set in the fiercely com­pet­i­tive world of bal­let, the film piv­ots around a bravura, Os­car-tipped per­for­mance by Natalie Port­man as a promis­ing star bal­le­rina em­broiled in a strange Sap­phic ri­valry with a younger, un­con­ven­tional dancer played by Mila Ku­nis. A daz­zling and fre­quently mon­strous hy­brid of Re­pul­sion and The Red Shoes, we’re un­likely to see a bet­ter pic­ture this year. It may even be Aronof­sky’s mas­ter­piece.

“It was a gam­ble,” says Aronof­sky. “I sus­pect some peo­ple will have is­sues with the tone. The film be­comes re­ally scary hav­ing not started out that way, and I think some peo­ple have got­ten re­ally freaked out by the sud­den­ness of that change. I think bal­let – not the world but the ac­tual bal­lets them­selves – are de­fined by melo­drama and camp and

DAR­REN ARONOF­SKY NATALIE PORT­MAN

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