Black Swan: Only tutus and pointe shoes separate the dainty stage in Darren Aronofsky’s eagerly anticipated new mindfuck from the gladiatorial ring of The Wrestler as an arena for contorted bodies and obsessed souls. The protagonist is a ballet dancer (Natalie Portman, nerves shooting out of her fingertips) who learns about the monstrous side of art as she literally hurls herself into a gaudy production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Closer to The Piano Teacher than The Red Shoes, it’s a half-exhilarating, half-forehead-smacking fairy tale about cruel aesthetes and the disintegrating/exultant pull of darkness, opening in the realm of dream and proceeding through a gleeful maelstrom of mirror shots, pirouetting camerawork, and corporeal punishment (toes, tendons, and cuticles get plenty of extreme close-up attention). Featuring an assembly line of past and present cat-eyed ingénues (Barbara Hershey as Portman’s dragonish mom, Mila Kunis as her insinuating understudy, Winona Ryder as the company’s deposed diva), it’s also about art (i.e. cinema) simultaneously upholding and grinding down beauty. “Ready to be thrown to the wolves?” the imperious maestro (an uproarious Vincent Cassel) asks his latest marionette; Aronofsky, Grand Guignol camera in hand, is sure ready to film it.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger: The tall, dark stranger of the cumbersome title turns out to be not Antonio Banderas (who joins Freida Pinto in embodying insultingly “exotic” objects of desire for the rest of the British cast), but, as one character suggests, the Reaper himself. Such is the mix of moldy fatalism and wheezing jokes in Woody Allen’s London-set roundelay of neurotics, muses, and charlatans, which plays less as a critique of willful delusion than as an ode to it. Everybody on screen wants to be told sweet little lies. There’s art gallery assistant Naomi Watts, who yearns for her boss (Banderas) to reciprocate her desire while vainly waiting for security and children from her struggling novelist husband (Josh Brolin), a “member of the Formerly Promising Club” who only has eyes for the cutie from across his window (Pinto). And then there’s Watts’s mother (Gemma Jones), who’s taken up occultism and glasses of sherry after her husband (Anthony Hopkins) dumps her for a Viagra-propelled affair with an aggressively dim gold digger (Lucy Punch). Ditching even Match Point’s pretense of class inquiry in favor of petrified misanthropy, it’s easily Allen’s bleakest “comedy” in years.
Balada Triste de Trompeta: Parables about the Franco era comprise a virtual subgenre of Spanish cinema: Give Carlos Saura his deserved place as its poet laureate, but leave room for Álex de la Iglesia as its boldest dismantler. Setting its tone of outsized grotesquery in a 1937 prologue that finds a raggedy clown slashing his way through hordes of fascist rebels with a machete, the 1973-set story takes place in and around “the last circus” (the film’s prosaic English title), propped against the upheaval-filled backdrop of El Generalissimo’s waning regime. The hideous tug of war is between puffy, owlish Sad Clown (Carlos Arece) and drunken, sadistic Happy Clown (Antonio de la Torre), yin-yang monsters whose deformed psyches eventually can no longer be camouflaged by greasepaint. At the center is Caroline Bang’s toothsome acrobat—the soul of Spain herself? If so, all the more credit to de la Iglesia for making her a darting-tongued lewdling who perversely relishes her own vile ravishment. The filmmaker’s lack of discipline ultimately mars the subtext, but the brazen fusion of Jodorowsky and Tashlin remains a heady mix that shows how timid and safe Pan’s Labyrinth really was.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9—19.