Darren Aronofsky is set for the big-time with Black Swan, his latest film on his favourite subject - madness
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Darren Aronofsky became fascinated by madness - specifically paranoid schizophrenia - while working on first feature film, Pi. Set among New York's Orthodox Jewish community, its main character, Max Cohen, is a troubled number theorist who believes he may have discovered the numerical code which can explain everything in Creation, and ends up taking a power drill to his head in what must be one of the few scenes of self-trepanning in cinema history.
Thirteen years later, Aronofsky is taking another walk on the wild side with his unsettling new psychological thriller, Black Swan. The film charts the mental disintegration of a sexually-repressed New York ballerina, Nina (Natalie Portman, as you have never seen her before), as she struggles to become the perfect embodiment of the White Swan/Black Swan, in a "visceral" staging of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.
Basically, in Black Swan, the director is trying to make us feel what it is like to go mad. The film immerses the viewer in the crumbling psyche of its beautiful - and highly unreliable - protagonist in frame one, and holds you there, disorientatingly, for its entire running time.
The Manhattan-based film-maker cites Roman Polanksi's 1965 psychological thriller, Repulsion, in which a sexually inhibited woman played by Catherine Deneuve descends into insanity, as one of his influences; but he was also able to draw on his own real-life experiences.
Darren Aronofsky: “eureka moment”
"I know some people that have gone through serious struggles," he says of his interest in mental illness, "people that were close to me, and I've seen some terrible things about people who lose it. So I think that type of pain is something that's human and that, actually, can help us look at ourselves a little bit."
The idea for Black Swan started to form when Aronofsky read Dostoevsky's novella, The Double, about a man who wakes up and discovers that someone has stolen his identity and is taking over his life. "I thought that was a really good, scary idea that a lot of people could relate to."
Later, he went to a performance of Swan Lake where, he says, he suddenly had a "eureka moment" that brought everything he had been thinking about together.
"There's a duality of a black swan and a white swan, played by one dancer, and then there's the idea that during the day she's a swan but at night she's half-swan/half-human. So I'm like: 'Wow, that's a werewolf movie. A were-swan movie'. I thought this was even better than a double, because she's two different characters."
Aronofsky says he "got excited" about taking the Israeli-American actress Natalie Portman, "this delicate, beautiful flower, and turning her into this creature". He had been a fan of the actress for years, and when he talked to her, he was struck by the contrast between the complexity of Portman herself and the relative simplicity of the characters she had been playing. He knew that, given the chance, they could do something special together.
"All the roles she was doing, because of her youthfulness and beauty, seemed to me very innocent," he says. "So I was hoping no one would sort of uncover her womanhood before me."
Nina's journey from "innocent girl trapped in a woman's body who gets to burst out and discover her sexuality, her power, and become a woman" is also, as suggested by Aronofsky to a degree, Portman's journey. Finally, the actress, who made her movie debut in Luc Besson's hit-man thriller Leon, aged 13, has been allowed to grow up on screen. This has been mirrored off-screen with her recent announcement (unusual for someone famous for her privacy) that she is not only engaged to the film's choreographer, dancer Benjamin Millepied, but also pregnant.
Three other Jewish actresses appear in Black Swan - Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder and Barbara Hershey - but it is Portman's performance that has garnered widespread critical acclaim, although Kunis has had her share of praise too. Both performers have received Golden Globe nominations (the film has also been nominated for best director and best film).
However, there were moments when Portman was training, "and there was a long road to go", where Aronofsky secretly worried he might have to replace her with a professional dancer. Portman battled on, though, committing herself to the physically and emotionally demanding role, just as Mickey Rourke had done for the director's previous film, The Wrestler.
"She spent a year training five hours a day and it was very gruelling," says Aronofsky. Consequently, he felt terrible each time he had to tell her that the filming start date had been pushed back by several weeks because of problems raising money to fund production. "She was a good sport about it but I realised I didn't know how much pain she was in, because she was like: 'Another three weeks of almonds and carrot sticks? I'm going to kill myself.' So it was very, very tough for her to pull off."
In fact, if Black Swan is to be believed, ballet is tough for everyone - its beauty often achieved with considerable pain. As an outsider, Aronofsky found the ballet world difficult to penetrate, but he insists, despite some insiders' claims to the contrary, that he has presented it fairly and accurately. Indeed, finding a way of portraying what he saw backstage - "the muscles, these tiny tendons and joints gripping on to hold the position… the bloody feet and the condition the dancers' bodies are in" - was partly what excited him as a film-maker in the first place; and is the reason he considers Black Swan to be a companion piece to The Wrestler - both films, at their core, being about performers who seek to achieve perfection using their bodies.
Whether he has done the world of ballet a disservice or not is open to debate. As an intense psychological thriller and disturbing portrait of a mind in freefall, however, Black Swan works brilliantly.
The next move for Aronofsky, who recently separated from his partner of nine years, British actress Rachel Weisz, is The Wolverine, a big-budget project starring Hugh Jackman. For the first time in a career which has seen more than its share of struggles over financing, the director will be working in mainstream Hollywood, backed with money from a big studio.
"I'm kind of excited," he says.
BORN: February 12 1969, New York. Brought up in a Conservative Jewish household.
CAREER: Debut feature, Pi, in 1996. Followed by critically acclaimed Requiem for a Dream (2000) and the award-winning, The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke (2008).
PERSONAL LIFE: Separated last year from his partner Rachel Weisz. They have a four-year-old son
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'Black Swan' opens on January 21