Making the leap from directing sweaty, slabs of meat to pretty, dainty dancers might seem like an odd move for The Wrestler ’s Darren Aronofsky, but it was actually that film’s success that has paved the way for upcoming ballet psychodrama, Black Swan .
A twisty-turny thriller set in the world of the New York Ballet, the idea for Black Swan has been kicking around for a good while, with Aronofsky first pitching the idea to Universal back in 2007.
But whilst the project was initially fast-tracked by the studio, it was eventually placed in turnaround limbo while Universal waited for another studio to stump up development costs.
In fairness to Universal, a ballet-based mindfuck hardly looks like a guaranteed smash on paper. Aronofsky’s star had also waned somewhat since the success of the critically lauded Requiem For A Dream , with 2006’s The Fountain clocking up some distinctly iffy reviews.
However, it’s funny how a few Oscar nominations can make studio execs think twice. With critics queuing up to lavish praise on The Wrestler , Aronofsky was suddenly a man in demand.
MGM were apparently keen to recruit the director to breathe new life into the Robocop franchise, before they found themselves without a pot to piss in, and rumours persist that he will team up with Angelina Jolie to adapt Ron Rash novel Serena .
This newly-replenished industry clout meant Aronofsky could afford to pick and choose however,with the director deciding to place Black Swan squarely at the top of his list.
The studio had previously distributed The Wrestler and were clearly confident that Aronofsky could repeat the trick a second time.
So what exactly is it that Aronofsky will be serving up? The story of a washed up ballerina, looking for one last crack at the big time before her heart gives in? Er no, nothing of the sort actually.
The film will focus upon talented ballerina Nina, the star turn in a New York production of Swan Lake , who finds her position under threat upon the arrival of sexy newcomer Lily.
So far, so generic you might think, but this is set to be a far more complicated affair than it first appears. Because instead of simply hating each other’s guts, Lily and Nina soon forge a rather unsettling relationship that leads them down some very dark paths indeed… Bring It On , it ain’t.
Next: Tiny Dancers [page-break]
The first major morsel of casting to hit the news was that Natalie Portman would be playing Nina, and according to the star, it was a role that Aranofsky had always had her in mind for.
“Darren and I started discussing doing the film in 2000,” Portman told USA Today , confirming that the project has been on Aronofsky’s radar for a lot longer than the three years since he presented it to Universal.
“The fact that I spent so long with the idea allowed it to marinate a little before we shot.”
It should prove to be one of the biggest tests of Portman’s acting talent to date, with her character forced to grapple with plenty more than the odd dance routine.
Not only will Nina find herself at loggerheads with her new rival, but she’ll also have a domineering mother to deal with in the form of Barbara Hershey.
Factor in Vincent Cassel’s sexually manipulative dance master, and she’s set to have quite the time of it. However, the adult nature of the part is apparently what drew Portman to the project in the first place.
“I'm trying to find roles that demand more adulthood from me,” she told MTV last year, “because you can get stuck in a very awful cute cycle as a woman in film, especially being such a small person."
"I'm a really late bloomer. In my own life, it's only been the last couple of years where I'm like, ‘I'm an adult.’"
Her character Nina is initially drafted into the film’s production of Swan Lake as the White Swan, a paragon of poise and innocence.
Lily (Mila Kunis) on the other hand, is the polar opposite, a sexy, sultry dancer plucked by Cassel’s character to play the Dark Swan.
"And, my character is very loose. The talent that my character has in ballet comes naturally to her.
She’s not as technically as good as Natalie’s character, but she has more passion naturally, and that’s what Natalie’s character lacks, and so it’s a battle. It’s a yin and yang.”
However, when asked to explain any further, Kunis goes all coy on us, particularly when it comes to discussing the film’s more “psychological” element.
“(Lily’s) not a bad girl,” she insists. “There’s no protagonist and antagonist. There really isn’t. I don’t know how to do press for this because I cannot explain this movie to save my life."
"There are no bad people in this movie. As far as (Natalie’s character) and I go, it’s just an unfortunate tale.”
With much of the film’s pre-release buzz making reference to a “supernatural element”, we’ve got a sneaking suspicion that Kunis’s character might not be everything she seems…
Next: Dancers In The Dark [page-break]
Dancers In The Dark
Black Swan promises to be no different.
“It’s very unique in tone,” Natalie Portman told MTV . “I think of it as a psychological thriller, like Rosemary’s Baby in (terms of) genre.”
So whilst we can probably assume little baby Satan isn’t going to pop his head up, it seems fairly apparent that Portman’s character is going to be just a teensy bit disturbed.
Her character is in a world that’s just falling apart all around her,” confirms Kunis. “And so, because everything is falling apart around her, crazy things start happening.”
Indeed, it’s when Portman and Kunis strike up an unlikely friendship that things start to go awry, with Nina’s dark side coming rather startlingly to the fore.
Take a look at the trailer. It doesn’t look like Nina’s a very happy girl, does it?
Now at the risk of throwing up a spoiler, it looks as though Lily and Nina are two sides of the same coin. Check out the part when Nina is walking through the tunnel. The figure coming towards her is clearly Natalie Portman, but when she turns around, it’s somebody else entirely…
Kunis says it’s worth familiarising yourself with the Swan Lake story before watching the movie. “If you know the story of Black Swan, you’ll get what the story is about,” she says.
“The characters are ballerinas dancing Swan Lake , and the characters within the film mirror the story of Swan Lake . It’s a fascinating story.”
Obviously we’re well up on our ballet at Total Film, and we couldn’t help noticing that a large part of Swan Lake revolves around a sorcerer who transforms a princess into a swan by day and a woman at night.
So is Kunis Portman’s inner woman, struggling to break out? Or is she something more sinister than that? Whatever she is, she leads Nina into plenty of trouble along the way.
"They meet up and get wrapped up in the drama that happens between the two girls. They're pawns in their game that’s going on, which is all infiltrated by Mila Kunis' character.”
Hmm, sounds like there are definitely two real girls then. Or perhaps Stan is just attempting not to give the game away.
In any case it seems like the most unsettling thing Aranofsky’s turned his hand to since Requiem For A Dream . That scene with Portman and the mirror certainly gives us the willies!
And speaking of which, there’s another standout scene that probably deserves our attention…
Next: Mila And Nat, Sitting In A Tree [page-break]
Mila And Nat, Sitting In A Tree…
"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!”
In fact, the films more sexual elements may well fall upon the Gallic shoulders of Vincent Cassel who plays dance master Thomas Leroy, a teacher with a rather unhealthy involvement with his pupils.
“That’s how he works with them,” says Cassel to Indiewire , “it’s through sexual relationships. That’s how he controls them. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s very hard on them.”
“Also, being a sexual object when you’re a kid is really uncomfortable. After The Professional , I was already getting creepy letters.”
However, the main test for both actresses was not the lesbian kiss, but rather the need to sharpen up their dance steps…
Next: All The Right Moves [page-break]
All The Right Moves
"You can fake looking like you’re active and throwing things and shooting a gun. You cannot fake ballet. That’s what I’ve learned. It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Her director was clearly impressed though, telling USA Today that, “Mila's arms are incredible. Her arms are better than her body double's!”
Portman had a bit of an advantage over her co-star in that she had a childhood background in ballet. “I took ballet until I was 13,” she says. “I had always hoped to do a dance film. It is the most emotional form of expression.”
Clearly it was worth the wait, as Aronofsky says she pretty much nailed it. “Most of these women who are here started dancing when they were 4, 5 or 6 years old,” he told USA Today .
“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.”
“I mean it would have to be vastly screwed with, but that’s a starting point. Sometimes we’ve had ideas in the past and you put them into practice and they just suck, so we’ll see.”
Having created the soundtrack for every Aronofsky film since his debut feature Pi , Mansell should be fairly confident that this one won’t suck, although we’ll have to wait until the Venice film festival to know for sure…
Next: Next Stop Venice [page-break]
Next Stop Venice
“He wants to make those strange kind of movies, you know? They’re different, they’re independent, they’re not easy to sell most of the time, but they’re really special.”
Mila Kunis meanwhile, insists that the ballet training would have been a deal-breaker, had it not been for the man behind the camera.
“(I agreed to it) because I love Darren Aronofsky and, if anybody was ever going to get me to do it, it would be him,” she told Collider .
“If I was ever going to trust anybody to make me look like a ballerina, it would be him. I have two left feet!”
He would give you a backstory of the character, and then he would just expect you to live in that world. He encouraged everyone to live in that world, the entire time that we were shooting, whether we were actually on camera or not.”
So will Aronofsky be leaving Venice with another trinket for the mantelpiece? From what we can glean from the trailer, it looks like he has every chance. It’s a rare trick to be able to create a genuinely creepy atmosphere from a two minute teaser, without giving the game away completely.
And the poster art alone is enough to give us the shivers…expect this to be the talk of the Festival, giving it some welcome buzz before it arrives on US screens on December 1st.
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