Set in the cultish world of ballet and revolving around a performance of Swan Lake, Darren Aronofksy’s The Black Swan may be the best Dario Argento movie that Argento didn’t direct. It’s a psychological horror/thriller that recalls the finest of the Italian giallo films. Or imagine The Red Shoes directed by Hitchcock at his most demented and you’ll get a sense of the spinetingling creepiness and ravishing visuals served up by Aronofky’s wonderfully warped cinematic mindfucker.
It’s rare for a film these days to actually be scary. Most contemporary horror flicks are repulsive rather than frightening, assaulting the viewer instead of seducing them. The Black Swan is jump-out-of-your-seat scary and it achieves its scares honestly, through evocative storytelling and crafty film making. In addition, it’s sexy as hell, full of gothic atmosphere and genuine eroticism - a fairytale for adults.
Natalie Portman, Barbara Hershey, Wynona Ryder and the perpetually intriguing Vincent Cassel deliver terrific performances. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography is inverts the technicolor opulence of The Red Shoes, the dread shoes. The art direction by David Stein ( Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) evokes the German expressionism of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari.
Aronofsky, who directed one of the worst films ever made, the loathsome Requiem For A Dream, has now redeemed himself with two extraordinary films in a row: The Black Swan and 2008’s The Wrestler.
I’m rather certain my Argento comparison will hold up to careful scrutiny. I need to see Swan again but on a first viewing many of Argento’s stylistic flourishes, both psychological and visual, permeate The Black Swan like a cloud of intoxicating opium smoke: surrealistic dreamscapes, the lethal eroticism of sharp-edged objects, a virginal heroine in the thrall of suppressed sexuality, setting the action in a theater, windows and mirrors as portals into the subconscious, mother love, lesbianism, Catholic guilt, secret societies, occultism, the id on fire, blood, blood, blood….The Black Swan would make a great companion to Suspiria and Opera.
At the end of tonight’s screening of The Black Swan at the Austin Film Festival the audience cheered loudly in a spontaneous eruption of delight. We all felt the kind of giddiness one feels after being manhandled by a master filmmaker. Aronofsy may not quite be a master yet, but he’s getting there.
The Black Swan opens in the US on December 3.