Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan kicks off the Venice Film Festival today, which opens the door for early reviews. Almost every critic who caught an early screening agrees it is a tour de force, and quite possibly Aronofsky’s masterpiece.

The Internet was hit with a flurry of reviews for the film that couples the elegance of ballet with the intensity of suspense. Even before the critics spoke out, the buzz surrounding Black Swan was more than positive. Early drafts of the script circulating around the web piqued our interest.

Exactly three months from its December 1st release date, the excitement is coming in quite early, but sounds well-deserved. The Black Swan trailer may have been enough to suggest its Oscar potential, but word of mouth thus far practically locks Black Swan down for a few nominations.

The most consistent praise is directed at Natalie Portman’s performance. From a physical standpoint, she fits the bill perfectly for this character. Psychologically, Portman would have to reach new heights, even with such heartbreaking roles as Mathilda (The Professional) and Lauren Gustafson (Heat).

If there’s one thing Aronofsky is good at, it is finding the deepest emotions of his actors and exposing them through fictional characters. But many have lost faith in Portman’s ability to exude mental anguish in her roles. Arguably, her roles of late (Brothers, The Other Boleyn Girl) have shown an actress turning the page on a relatively light-hearted career. According to the critics, both director and actress succeeded.

“Centerstage stands Natalie Portman, whose courageous turn lays bare the myriad insecurities genuinely dedicated performers face when testing their limits, revealing shades of the actress never before seen on film.”  – Peter DeBruge, Variety

“Here, the role cleverly forces the actress into her most pinched, peaky mannerisms — even her little-girl voice is piched an octave higher than usual — only to undercut them as the character gradually loses her self-awareness; the resulting performance is as dangerous, and oddly touching, as Portman has ever allowed herself to be.”  – Guy Lodge, In Contention

Portman, who has danced but is no ballerina, does a more than credible job in the big dance numbers and the tough rehearsals that are so essential to the film. In her acting, too, you sense she has bravely ventured out of her comfort zone to play a character slowly losing sight of herself. It’s a bravura performance.”  – Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter

“Portman must now be favourite for the Oscar.”  – Robert Beames, Obsessed With Film

Black Swan focuses on a number of issues that will lead to controversial debates once the film hits theaters. Most of all, critics agree the nature of the film takes you way out your comfort zone as it dives into psychological deterioration and sexual tension.

“It’s a mesmerizing psychological ride that builds to a gloriously theatrical tragic finale as Nina attempts to deliver the perfect performance.”  – Mike Goodride, Screen Daily

Aronofsky seems to be operating more in the vein of early Roman Polanski or David Cronenberg at his most operatic. Though the director never immerses us as deeply inside Portman’s head as he did Mickey Rourke’s in ‘The Wrestler,’ the latter third of ‘Black Swan’ depicts a highly subjective view of events that calls to mind the psychological disintegration of both ‘Repulsion’ and ‘Rosemary’s Baby.'”  – Peter DeBruge, Variety

Black Swan extends that fascination to the realm of the mind: Nina’s malnourishment and mangled toes are small potatoes compared to the damage she inflicts on herself internally — her punishing workaholism fiercely egged on by Barbara Hershey’s nightmare stage mom, in parental court on charges of both infantilization and vicarious living.”  – Guy Lodge, In Contention

“Best film I’ve seen all year… Left me devastated, excited, tense and emotionally drained… A perfect film that blends The Red Shoes with Antichrist, via Cronenberg.”  – Robert Beames, Obsessed With Film

The critics are not the only ones discussing the themes of Black Swan. Aronofsky considers it a counterpart to his previous work, The Wrestler. Aronofsky discussed the connections between the films in a recent interview with MTV.

“I’ve always considered the two films companion pieces. They are really connected and people will see the connections. It’s funny, because wrestling some consider the lowest art — if they would even call it art — and ballet some people consider the highest art. But what was amazing to me was how similar the performers in both of these worlds are. They both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves.”

“At one point, way before I made ‘The Wrestler,’ I was actually developing a project that was about a love affair between a ballet dancer and a wrestler, and then it kind of split off into two movies. So I guess my dream is that some art theater will play the films as a double feature some day.”

It’s interesting to hear the possibility of a Darren Aronofsky romantic drama between the two characters, but there would be no room for the suspense that Black Swan apparently offers. Ignorance is most definitely bliss in this situation, but I much prefer this concept as two separate films.

Aronofsky is one of the most talented and critically acclaimed filmmakers working today – and he does it all on low budgets. He constantly makes movies that are close to him and Black Swan seems like a continuation of his constantly evolving style. Each films bleeds into the next as they grow more intelligent and self-conscious.

If Black Swan is indeed Aronofsky’s masterpiece and nabs him an Oscar it will not be without serious competition. Toy Story 3 and Inception already have the awards community fighting for preference and this is all before the true “awards season” has even begun. The positive buzz may go a long way towards Aronofsky earning the director’s chair for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine 2 after they worked together a few years back on The Fountain.

Do these reviews raise your interest in Black Swan or is it all just confirmation of a film you desperately want to check out.

Black Swan pirouettes into theaters on December 1st, 2010.

Sources: MTV, Variety, In Contention, The Hollywood Reporter, Obsessed With Film, Screen Daily