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
“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