It's not easy for an art-house film to get moviegoers polarized, certainly not on aesthetic grounds. But before it has really even started to roll out on the festival circuit, Darren Aronofsky's "Black Swan" has begun to do just that.
The reaction last month to the trailer for the ballet world-set supernatural character drama -- which plays up the horror elements a bit more than perhaps the film does -- already generated reaction of "this looks amazing" to "this looks extremely bizarre" and gave you the immediate sense this was not a movie that would pass quietly. At the Venice Film Festival, where "Black Swan" just premiered as the opening-night film, the critics are already divided-- against themselves.
Just check out Hollywood Reporter critic Kirk Honeycutt's review of the Natalie Portman-Mila Kunis film, which jumps all over the place like a ballerina on a New York stage. "Trying to coax a horror-thriller out of the world of ballet doesn't begin to work for Darren Aronofsky" goes the summary at the top of the review. But two paragraphs in, his skepticism dissolves, and he seems to enjoy the very thing he just decried. " 'Swan' is an instant guilty pleasure, a gorgeously shot, visually complex film whose badness is what's so good about it." That is, until he finishes his assessment with a who-needs-all-this dismissal. "[T]he horror-movie nonsense drags everything down the rabbit hole of preposterousness," he concludes. Was the same person responsible for all three sentences?
Then again, it's fitting and understandable that a filmgoer would war with himself about a movie that's about doppelgangers and one's own worst enemy, as Portman duels with -- or is it invents -- a rival character who is her diametrical opposite. No critic so far disagrees on the ambition of what may well turn out to be the most captivatingly watchable film of the fall. But they are divided on which of the movies contained within the genre-bender -- the art-house dance film, the Freudian character study, the supernatural suspense picture -- work, and how they should or shouldn't go together.
The commercial question, of course, is what the schizophrenic response will mean for the film (which, incidentally, Universal put in turnaround as too difficult/ambitious before Fox Searchlight picked up the gauntlet, coming on to co-finance and distribute the passion project from Aronofsky and his Protozoa Pictures). Jagged reactions are good for those of us in the media, but they don't necessarily mean the same thing for filmgoers, who, particularly during awards season, like to wait for the wind to steadily begin blowing in a certain direction before turning out in droves.
Then again, radically different reactions to "Inception" only helped that film; polarize people in the right way and everyone wants to see what the fuss is about.
Whatever audiences wind up concluding about "Black Swan," is there anything more enjoyable than a movie, in this day of rigid genre distinctions, that erases so many arbitrary lines? About that it's hard to be divided.
Photo: Natalie Portman in "Black Swan." Credit: Fox Searchlight