When Darren Aronofsky left New York in the middle of December on a European tour to publicize his new film, Black Swan, it looked well on its way to making back its estimated $13 million budget. By the time he returned from his tour, three weeks later, it had taken in over $50 million—which is more than all of his previous films combined—and Jim Carrey was performing a Black Swan parody on SNL in a full leotard and tutu. “It’s crazy,” says the 41-year-old director. “Black Swan doesn’t feel much different from my past films, so I don’t get it. The movie is out there, it’s definitely weird. The first comments we got back from people were that it was weird.”
Aronofsky tells me this over dinner at Shun Lee Cafe, just opposite Lincoln Center, where parts of Black Swan were shot and where, in just a few hours, he’ll take part in a moderated discussion of his work. He seems a little shellshocked by his film’s success, pleased and perplexed in equal measure, with some jet lag thrown in. “I think he’s embracing it, but the reality is still hitting him,” says his longtime producer Scott Franklin.
Aronofsky is a handsome, big-boned guy with a small, vulpine smile and a lingering impression of sternness that even his man-of-the-hour high spirits can’t dispel. Maybe it’s the mustache, which manages to bypass the seventies and burrow back to the early days of film, when directors like Josef von Sternberg, bullhorn in hand, bent the very light itself to their bidding. “There is, strangely enough, something very old-fashioned about him,” says Vincent Cassel, who plays Thomas, the ballet’s artistic director in Black Swan. “The mustache, the way he carries himself, his voice, which is very particular. Darren really likes actors, you can feel it, but at the same time he likes to trick you; he tells secrets to one that the others don’t know to get something different out of them.”
It is often said of directors that they are control freaks. Aronofsky goes one better: He’s a loss-of-control freak. His films are immaculately calibrated surrenders in which his heroes splinter and break upon the rocks of their own consuming obsessions. In one sense, Black Swan is no different: a dark fantasia about Nina (Natalie Portman), a ballerina whose pursuit of perfection takes her to the edge of madness, death, and perfectly choreographed oblivion. That is not the film that has been playing in theaters, however—or not quite.
“More than anything, what they’ve been saying to me is that Black Swan is fun,” says Aronofsky, pausing slightly over the word fun as if expecting to be apprehended. “That’s been one of the most interesting parts about this trip. We knew it was extremely heightened; if you watch ballet, it’s often hysterical. A lot of the reason the film goes over the top is because of Tchaikovsky and Clint Mansell’s score, which makes scenes go to fucking volume eleven. I remember hearing the music, and at first I was like, Uh-oh. And then I thought, You know what? Fuck it. Because it was insane. We knew it was going to that next level, that it was going to push people.”
But perhaps not to laughter. The laughs greeting Black Swan are complex. Two parts tension relief to one part flabbergast (with a few snickers at the film’s thick impasto of cliché—a mother straight out of Carrie, a lesbian love scene à la Showgirls), they finally settle into a stupefied gonzo admiration for the spectacle of the thing. “I never thought there would be out-loud laughter,” says Aronofsky. “I thought there would be smiles, but none of my films has ever really had laughs. I don’t think it’s just nervous laughter; I think it’s a mixture of things, because I’ve heard it in a few places, I know the spots they’re hitting, and the reaction seems different in each. And in Europe: nothing. No laughter at all. So I don’t know what that means.”
The watercooler talk has been unusually intense for Black Swan. In addition to those who find the film courting ridiculousness, some have voiced complaints about misogyny. “What’s interesting,” he says, “is that it’s male writers who are having issues with it more than female, which I think is worth looking into. What do you think?”
Aronofsky is genuinely curious, as if he, too, were on the outside of his own film looking in. And in a way he is, for Black Swan is a bona fide phenomenon, an art-house indie on its way toward $100 million at the box office, and unquestionably the love-it-or-hate-it movie of the year—which is apt. Doubleness is, after all, the film’s subject and its object: horror film versus ballet film, white swan versus black, the movie Aronofsky made versus the one being received, and the two sides of the director’s own personality that are dramatized in the film. “I just want to be perfect,” Nina whispers to Thomas at one point. “Perfection is not just about control,” he replies. “It’s also about letting go.” It’s a conversation Aronofsky has been having with himself his whole career.