Darren Aronofsky made a martyr-hero of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, about a man so obsessive that he tears himself apart in the masochistic pursuit of his craft.
The blood, sweat and fear that he expended in the ring were at once his cross to bear and his reason for living. Now, in Black Swan, Aronofsky explores the distaff side of this morbid dedication to performance, a ballet melodrama in which it isn't just the body that is threatened with disintegration, but the mind too.
Natalie Portman plays the role of Nina, a New York ballerina who's worked her pointes off to be the best dancer in her company. She's desperate to play the lead in a new version of Swan Lake, and has a good chance now that the troupe's prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) has been forced into retirement. The company's flamboyant artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) believes Nina is perfect for the part of the virginal Swan Queen, who kills herself for love, but he doubts that she has the right stuff for the counter-part of her evil twin, the Black Swan. The latter needs more than mere discipline; it's about spontaneous, sexual allure. Nina persuades him she has it, and the film becomes a darkly hysterical account of how she persuades herself.
Thomas, though a tyrannical jerk, is right to have doubts, for Nina is anything but worldly. Home is a small apartment she shares with her mother (Barbara Hershey), a former ballerina who alternately smothers and scolds, biting back the rancour she feels towards Nina after a less successful career of her own. Nina's bedroom belies her age (mid-twenties, though never stated), shared with a coven of cuddly stuffed animals and frou-frou dresses. It fairly screams repression, to add to a sad roster of occupational troubles – secret bulimia, a pathological scratching, tortured bones and tendons. Her body language suggests she has got to where she is the hard way. When she phones home with news that she has clinched the part, Nina's expression of tearful delight could quite easily be mistaken for one of agony.
That's one of several brilliant touches by Natalie Portman, who apparently put herself through a gruelling routine of her own in committing to dance almost the entire role. Extreme fatigue, swollen feet and a serious rib injury took their toll in the months of rehearsal. But it's the psychological pressure – and the scary perfectionism – that Portman so adroitly conveys on screen, and a good job, too, because without it the film's stacking of Grand Guignol and delusional horror might have toppled into silliness. The central performance carries it over the bumps. Portman's Nina is shy and sweet, but also humourless and withholding: she doesn't really "get" other people, least of all the company's darling newcomer, Lily (Mila Kunis), a sexy, instinctive dancer who would be ideal for the Black Swan part, and Nina knows it. She greets Lily's overtures of friendship as if she's been handed a rattlesnake, and only after persistent campaigning does she consent to a night out with her supposed rival. An error, as it transpires: Nina oversleeps the next morning, and arrives at rehearsals to find Lily understudying in her absence.
From this nod to All about Eve you can assume that the scriptwriters (Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, John McLaughlin) know their movie precedents. Devotees of The Red Shoes will also be cross-checking the references, and perhaps lamenting that Cassel's sleazy taskmaster isn't a patch on Anton Walbrook's thin-lipped, gimlet-eyed despot. You may also glimpse A Star Is Born and even the gormless Showgirls lurking in the shadows. Yet it's Aronofsky's sensibility that dominates, not the writers', notably in the scenes of Nina's frightening mental dissolution, first implied in the use of mirrors and phantasmal doubles, later in paranoid visions of bleeding wounds and horrid deformities – not since early David Cronenberg has flesh looked so vulnerable to mutation. Aronofsky keeps his camera bodyguard-close to Portman, and unnerves us in the dance sequences by making her agitated breathing audible just beneath the music.
There's a silent lurking monster in this movie, and its name is Age. We see it first in the damaged contours of Barbara Hershey's face (it's her Joan Crawford role), utterly terrifying in a scene where she seems to materialise like a death's-head from a darkened room. And I wonder if Aronofsky enjoyed the mischief of casting Winona Ryder as the deposed has-been of the troupe, bitter in her exit scene and surely reflecting Ryder's own troubled withdrawal from the limelight. Apart from gymnast, ballerina might be the one profession that operates an even quicker revolving-door than actress. Professional resentment is mostly unspoken, but it's there when Lily first breezes into the mirrored dressing-room to meet her colleagues, their looks even sharper than their shoulder-blades. There will always be someone younger than they are coming through the door.
By the end, resentment has entered a psychotic dimension, and melodrama has morphed irretrievably into horror movie. Of course the possibility of it has been there, perhaps from the very first minutes when we saw Nina at home in her mother's bedroom, plastered with self-portraits, a shrine to herself. If you think it all sounds overblown – nuts – you'd probably be right. But The Red Shoes was nuts, too, and it's still a masterpiece. Black Swan dances itself dizzy in its urge to overwhelm us, but Aronofsky's boldness and Natalie Portman's exquisite, raw-nerved performance make the surrender very enjoyable.