Film and TV

Starz Denver Film Festival Closing Night: If Black Swan isn't a comedy, why is it so funny?

The Starz Denver Film Festival has lately gotten very good at choosing future Academy Award nominees or winners to spotlight on its highest profile evenings -- and given the Oscar buzz surrounding Black Swan, Saturday's closing-night offering at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, that streak is likely to continue. Still, there was something more than a little unusual about the laughs the picture generated -- because it's not supposed to be a comedy. Even before the red carpet introduction of visiting filmmakers had run its course, the Ellie was full to bursting with a crowd considerably larger than the ones attracted to either this year's opening-night flick, Rabbit Hole or the Big Night presentation, 127 Hours. Why? In all likelihood, Black Swan's ballet-driven storyline, which attracted a slew of tony supporters of the classical arts in addition to average movie-goers eager to get an early look at a highly acclaimed new production.

The presentation got underway with festival artistic director Brit Withey greeting the throng before bringing out Matt Emerson, who turned his introduction of the sponsor film into an advertisement for his business, Ceavco Audio Visual -- an appropriate juxtaposition. Then Withey returned to announce the winners of various festival prizes, lauding efforts as varied as animator Bill Plympton's The Cow Who Wanted to be a Hamburger and The White Meadows, part of the fest's fascinating focus on movies from Iran. The assortment demonstrated again Withey and staff's eclecticism, which remains one of the SDFF's finest attributes.

And then came Black Swan, the latest work by director Darren Aronofsky, whose previous movie, The Wrestler, screened at the festival's 2008 edition. And the comparison's don't end there. Indeed, Black Swan is The Wrestler's companion piece due to stylistic similarities -- each film sports repeated sequences of the protagonists walking with Aronofsky's camera directly behind their head, literally invading their space -- and the thematic kinship of tales that fetishize performers who suffer agonizing physical (and mental) pain for the pleasure of the unwashed masses.

The Wrestler star Mickey Rourke handled such material with subtle underplaying actually enhanced by his inability to freely move his surgically altered face. Not so Black Swan's Natalie Portman, who spends the vast majority of her time on-screen wearing an eyebrow-craning expression that suggests she's on the verge of full-blown hysteria. She seems so unstable that most supervisors wouldn't trust her with a job folding sweaters at a Kohl's, let alone taking on the iconic, demanding role of the Swan Queen in a major production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake -- one that requires her to embrace the extremes of purity and darkness.

To say Nina, Portman's character, begins unraveling shortly after winning the part isn't quite accurate, since her yarn is figuratively all over the floor even before she gets the nod thanks in part to a horrific relationship with her smothering, controlling stage mom (Barbara Hershey). But the pressure that comes with stepping into a void previously filled by a diva (Winona Ryder) pushed into a retirement she resents, not to mention the presence of a backstabbing rival straight out of All About Eve (Mila Kunis), prompts breakdowns, schizophrenic hallucinations (the masturbation scene isn't the only time we see her having sex with herself) and the self-destructive behavior that causes her to literally claw at herself during her quieter moments.

Aronofsky's attempts to amp up this melodrama with music cues and shock cuts are so heavy-handed that they spark guffaws instead of dread. The techniques hark back to the early days of cinema -- as in, before the development of sound -- and so does Portman's performance. In the majority of her films, be they period pieces (The Other Boleyn Girl), baroque extravaganzas (V For Vendetta) or oddball comedies (The Darjeeling Limited), she's displayed intelligence and restraint, but not this time. She's so over the top that she seems less like a recognizable human than an exaggerated case study mocked up for student psychologists specializing in nervous breakdowns.

Yeah, Portman'll get an Oscar nomination, since voters tend to acknowledge acting they can see -- and this performance would be visible from Jupiter without the aid of a telescope. But just because it's brave doesn't make it artful, and as the film neared its loopy conclusion -- another echo from The Wrestler -- plenty of attendees, many of whom had struggled to stifle their snickering early on, were openly laughing.

The mirth produced a happy note near the end of another successful edition of the Starz Denver Film Festival -- just not the one Aronofsky and company were probably expecting.

Look below to see the Black Swan trailer:

More from our Television & Film archive: "127 Hours fainting attack: Man passes out during Starz Denver Film Festival."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts