Tarantino Heads Venice Film Jury as ‘Black Swan’ Sinks: Review

Marco Muller and Quentin Tarantino
Marco Muller, director of the Venice Film Festival (left) poses with film director Quentin Tarantino on Sept. 1, 2010. Tarantino was chairman of the judges at the 2010 festival. Source: Venice Film Festival via Bloomberg News.

Director Quentin Tarantino started the job of steering the Venice Film Festival jury yesterday, marveling at the chance to judge two dozen movies in just under two weeks.

“It’s one of the wildest, coolest, most eclectic lineups: It’s kind of all over the map, and that’s very exciting,” said Tarantino, who wore a tartan shirt to the inaugural press conference, his cheeks reddened by recent sun exposure.

The filmmaker, 47, said he watched “a ton of movies” before coming and had “my own festival” back home. “I’m a weirdo that way,” confessed the creator of “Pulp Fiction.”

Titles that Tarantino and his jury will rate include Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” Julian Schnabel’s “Miral,” and the festival opener: “Black Swan,” a spooky psychological thriller starring Natalie Portman and set in the cut-throat world of classical ballet.

The movie is directed by Darren Aronofsky, whose 2008 “The Wrestler” won Venice’s top Golden Lion prize, and led the semi-retired Mickey Rourke to a Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination.

“The Wrestler” owed a lot to Rourke’s tour-de-force performance as Randy the Ram -- an aging, perma-tanned wrestler addicted to the ring. In the movie, Rourke sported a bleach-blond mane, popped steroids to bulk up, and courted a stripper with a heart as hollow as his.

Shot with a handheld camera in a restless documentary style, “The Wrestler” felt incredibly real, mainly because Rourke, a onetime boxer, knew combat inside out. He later told interviewers he rewrote many of his own lines.

Black Swan

At the “Black Swan” press conference in Venice, Aronofsky, 41, pointed to similarities between the two projects. “I very much saw them as very related to each other,” he said, highlighting the physicality of both roles, and calling the ballet movie a “companion piece” to its predecessor.

Yet “Black Swan” altogether lacks the authenticity of “The Wrestler” -- despite its over-reliance on Tchaikovsky, whose music dominates the film, inspires the score, and even crops up in ringtones.

Portman plays Nina, a self-destructive ballerina who loves dance more than life itself and aches for the title role in “Swan Lake.” She is mentally stunted by an ex-dancer mom, keen young rivals, and a fading prima ballerina (Winona Ryder).

Remote-controlling her career is Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), a suave French artistic director who toys with dancers’ minds and sex drives. “You’re not a virgin, are you?” he asks the naive Nina, before sending her home to explore her own body. (Cassel seems to specialize in playing Gallic nasties; he was similarly cast in “Ocean’s Twelve” and “Ocean’s Thirteen.”)

Sultry Rival

Portman puts on a fine performance as the tortured ingenue, and Mila Kunis is persuasive as her sultry rival. They are simply let down by the writing, which Aronofsky outsourced to three people. The resulting dialogue is almost invariably trite. “I just want to be perfect,” Nina says, inviting the viewer to cringe, not empathize.

Aronofsky himself seems busy filming -- there are many circling shots of Portman in pointes and a tutu -- and guiding the cast. Though his sister trained as a ballerina, and while he had New York City Ballet dancer Benjamin Millepied choreograph, Aronofsky is very much an outsider looking in, his vision of ballet blurred by a profusion of cliches.

If only he had found an accomplished ballerina-turned-actress to cast in his movie, the dance equivalent of Mickey Rourke.

Rating: **.

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(Farah Nayeri writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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