TELLURIDE: After its sizzling debut in Venice earlier in the week, Fox Searchlight’s Black Swan continued steamrolling through this early awards season with its “unofficial” North American premiere Sunday afternoon billed by the Telluride Film Festival as a “sneak preview.” At the start of the psychological terror film set in a contemporary ballet company, a festival rep told the audience they were the lucky ones as hundreds still lined up outside were turned away (fortunately there are at least two other screenings coming up). But you could feel the anticipation with curious film fans storming the 600 + seat Palm Theatre, Telluride’s largest venue.
Director Darren Aronofsky, making his first-ever visit to the fest, began his introduction by saying he had spent the earlier part of his day walking up to the waterfall “but it was a terrible hike”. He mentioned he and star Natalie Portman (not here) had talked about doing this project for almost a decade. So was the wait worth it? This crowd seemed to think so although, unlike Venice, it didn’t get a standing ovation (they may have been too stunned to stand). Buzz afterward was strong for Aronofsky’s macabre vision of an artistically possessed ballerina pushing herself beyond the limits, and particularly for Portman’s dazzling tour de force that makes her an instant leading contender in every Best Actress race. During final credits, one shaken woman was overheard saying she was going outside to “smoke about 5 cigarettes”.
At the post-Q&A Aronofsky, joined by his composer Clint Mansell and producer Scott Franklin, said he and Portman first met at the now defunct Times Square Howard Johnson’s to discuss the project about 9 years ago, but it took this long to finally come to fruition. He noted his original idea was to spin off Dostoevsky’s The Double and then after seeing a production of Swan Lake knew he had the beginnings of something grand (guignol). As noted during the Q&A, the movie oozes sexuality with one “fantasy” lesbian encounter between Portman and co-star Mila Kunis really steaming up this rocky mountain arena. This is a hard R, folks. As with The Wrestler, there will be lots of Oscar talk and probably some speculation that it might all be a bit too much for some of the older Academy members, but I have a hunch this will play just fine on Wilshire Blvd. It’s bravura film making, melodramatic and riveting entertainment with great handheld camerawork from Matthew Libatique and an award-caliber cast including Portman, Kunis, an intense Vincent Cassel as the ballet company’s taskmaster director and Barbara Hershey as her domineering mother.
With two other titles–Never Let Me Go and 127 Hours–in addition to Black Swan, Fox Searchlight hosted a late night party Saturday and has a strong presence here. But they but can’t hold a candle to Sony Pictures Classics, which has 5 movies showing (adding yet another 4 for their trek next week to Toronto). Last night, SPC co-Presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard threw their annual La Marmotte dinner to celebrate the quintet that includes Mike Leigh’s Another Year, the likely French Oscar entry Of Gods And Men (Grand Prize winner at this year’s Cannes), Charles Ferguson’s devastating financial meltdown doc Inside Job, Stephen Frear’s very well-received English comedy Tamara Drewe, and Sylvain Chomet’s beautifully animated The Illusionist, based on an un-produced screenplay by the late, great Jacques Tati. I saw the latter earlier today and predict it’s certain to put Chomet, previously nominated for The Triplets Of Bellville, right in the heart of this year’s animated race no matter if 3 or 5 nominees qualify. In fact with this Telluride group alone ,the company could easily find itself in the unique position of having a nominee in each of Oscar’s key film categories: Picture, Documentary, Foreign Language Film and Animated Feature. Barker and Bernard are very high on their slate and told me they think they have particularly good Best Picture shots: Another Year, opening at the end of December; Made In Dagenham (Nov 19 but premiering first in Toronto), a stirring true story about the fight waged for equal pay by a group of English female factory workers in the early 70’s, with acting contenders Sally Hawkins, Miranda Richardson and Bob Hoskins; and even Get Low (currently on over 500 screens) where they have high hopes for Robert Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek. They will be strongly campaigning several other actors including Another Year’s standout star Lesley Manville, who attended last night’s dinner. SPC could be repped as well in the Golden Globe comedy or musical race with Tamara Drewe. While other studio owned specialty divisions continue to be in meltdown mode, this one somehow seems to keep thriving, largely thanks to smart awards-time strategizing. This year appears to be no different.
One of the festival highlights so far was Saturday night’s (and repeated Sunday morning) heartfelt tribute to the legendary Claudia Cardinale, the star of such classics as Fellini’s 8 ½, Once Upon A Time In The West, The Leopard and The Pink Panther. The Festival awarded her their Silver Medallion which also went earlier to Peter Weir and will be going Sunday night to Colin Firth, star of one of the Fest’s most-talked about successes, The King’s Speech. In line for the Cardinale event director Alexander Payne told me his favorite film so far was the Martin Scorsese documentary about director Elia Kazan, Letters To Elia, which screened earlier that afternoon. As for his own career, Payne hopes to finish post- production in January or February on his latest, the George Clooney-starrer The Descendants, which Fox Searchlight will release sometime in 2011. There is no date set but Payne indicated it could land at a couple of festivals (Cannes?) and likely will be released about a year from now which may put it right here at Telluride next Labor Day. Hey, it’s never too early to start thinking about next year’s awards season.