Darren Aronofsky has been making a most curious pitch for his new film. He's calling it a companion piece to his previous one: not an unusual ploy, but in this case the connection seems a little counter-intuitive. The American director's latest feature, Black Swan, is set in the world of classical ballet; its predecessor, The Wrestler, was about musclemen in spangled leotards and mullets, jumping on each other's chests and occasionally showing off by firing metal staples into their own scalps. In Black Swan, by contrast, the lead characters are slender young women dancing exquisitely to Tchaikovsky – yet the sense of psychological and physical violence so constantly hovers near the surface that you keep wondering when Natalie Portman's heroine is going to whip out a staple gun from under her tutu.
Black Swan certainly confirms Aronofsky's credentials as one of American cinema's specialists in the extremes of human experience. His first film, 1998's Pi, was about a lone mathematician driven mad by his devotion to numbers; it ended with the hero carving a chunk out of his scalp after trying to carve the secret name of God out of the value of pi. Then Requiem for a Dream (2000), based on Hubert Selby Jr's novel, followed its addict characters to a climactic apocalypse of humiliation, degradation, even amputation. You can imagine, then, how an Aronofsky ballet film might ' depict the travails of the human body. And thus, behind the surface picture of weightless Degas sylphs, Black Swan offers a panorama of strained tendons, sinews and bloody toenails – not so far from the damage incurred by the pumped-up hulks of The Wrestler.
In Pi days, Brooklyn-born Aronofsky carried the image of a streetwise indie kid par excellence. When I met him in a London hotel last October, he seemed to have aged comfortably into the role of a well-established Hollywood player. He may wear a baseball cap, but it reads "Pennsylvania Ballet". He also wears glasses and a well-clipped moustache that makes him look rather older than his 41 years, and altogether respectable, like a senior management consultant.
I get right down to the question of sprained ankles and split toenails. "What's interesting about ballet," says the soft-spoken director, "is that when you're in the audience, it looks incredibly effortless. The first time I went backstage, I was kind of stunned to see the muscles and the tendons gripping really hard, and seeing [the dancers] coming off stage sweating and out of breath – like, just bent over, out of breath. And then the blood – it was everywhere, and it was anything but effortless. As a film-maker, I was really turned on by that idea of how to show it."
Ballet, it seems, has been on Aronofsky's mind for some time. His older sister was a dancer, so he was always aware of the art, if not so interested in it. "Then, when I graduated from film school, I made a list of possible worlds to set movies in, and one of them happened to be the wrestling world and one of them happened to be ballet." Years later, a script came his way – The Understudy, by Andrés Heinz, about a rivalry between Broadway actresses – and Aronofsky decided to change the setting to a production of Swan Lake. "I just thought it would be an interesting world to explore. It's a sexy world; it's a poetic world."
It is the exotic and, in all honesty, downright barmy mix of sex and poetry in Black Swan that has had people raving about the film since it opened last autumn's Venice Film Festival; it's now set to feature prominently in this season's awards contests. A torrid psychosexual drama beneath its ostensible high-culture trappings, Black Swan stars Natalie Portman as a repressed young ballerina who gets the chance to dance the lead in Swan Lake. But she also has to play the heroine's dark, tempestuous counterpart, which involves finding her Dark Side. There's much steamy weirdness that you don't normally associate with ballet fictions: hallucinations, horror, lesbian clinches with doppelgängers.
Aronofsky may be right about ballet being all about sex and passion, but oddly enough, I tell him, I've never met a straight man who harbours erotic fantasies about ballerinas. "I guess maybe 20 years ago, ballet got hot again," he says, "but it was mainly the girls who were after Baryshnikov. I don't know the history of it, and this could sound totally ridiculous, but it seems to me, those skimpy tight outfits on the men and women, for rich people back in the 1880s, it was probably some kind of burlesque show. You're getting these incredibly athletic, fit people to parade in front of you – the whole turn-out and everything, women turning out their legs to push their privates out. It's an intense art."
For all the film's opulently beautiful, dizzyingly flamboyant virtuosity, I'm still not convinced there is any great substance to it; let's just say that there's a thin line between Black Swan and Daffy Duck. But Aronofsky recognises that he's working with a cliché-rich topic. "We knew we were dealing with stock characters. When you enter the ballet world there's gonna be a stage mom, there's gonna be an artistic director Svengali character – but how do you make them more well-rounded?"
What's curious about the film is how many other films have been invoked in reviews, to account for its hothouse strangeness: for example, The Red Shoes, Showgirls, Fight Club, Rosemary's Baby, Repulsion (you might call Aronofsky's confection a sort of Polanski Pavlova). I don't think I've seen critics pull so many comparisons out of the air.
"Hmm," he ponders. "Why do you think that is?" Presumably because he's seen a lot of films and Black Swan has hit on a rich vein of movie-buff resonance. "But I'm not really like Tarantino, one of those guys who's seen every film," he counters. "I was late to the game; I only started watching foreign film and independent film when I got into college."
Aronofsky may not be a hardcore cinephile director, but he's certainly managed to charge his film-making with a commanding ferocity and, indeed, seriousness. He clearly works from the conviction that cinema isn't just entertainment, but that each film should put its audience through a unique and intense experience; it's no surprise to learn that he's a huge admirer of France's demon provocateur Gaspar Noé. The intensity was on view from the start in Pi. Shot on a modest budget of $60,000, that film was an abrasively chiaroscuro black-and-white drama about a maths genius pushing his intellect to the limit and suffering nightmare delusions as a result. In fact, Pi's depiction of talent as a kind of curse – accompanied by physical pain and the risk of madness – is even more directly a precursor to Black Swan than The Wrestler was.
Pi established Aronofsky as the hot new indie kid of the late 1990s. He was a literate, pugnacious Jewish hipster who presented his mission as making films that visually approximated the rhythms of rap music. The son of teachers, he grew up in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn – a background echoed in his depiction of the Jewish milieu of Brighton Beach in Requiem. His parents practised conservative Judaism, but, says Aronofsky, "I was raised culturally Jewish, but there was very little spiritual attendance in temple. It was a cultural thing – celebrating the holidays, knowing where you came from, knowing your history, having respect for what your people have been through." Yet the young Aronofsky was also persuaded, while visiting Israel, to spend some time in an Orthodox yeshiva (Jewish school); the experience fuelled Pi, with its references to kabbalah and numerological extrapolations of the Hebrew alphabet.
Educated in the US public-school system, Aronofsky used to play up his streetwise image; at the time of Pi, he told me, "Fifty per cent of my friends became millionaires on Wall Street and the other half are probably drug dealers." He studied film at Harvard, but felt out of place among his wealthy peers, or so he said back then. I ask him whether his time there was anything like the picture of the university in The Social Network, another story of an ambitious Jewish outsider. Not at all, he says; he admires David Fincher's film, but it didn't correspond to his experience. "I was there 10, 15 years before [the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg] and I was actually 'punched' for the Porcellian" – that is, invited to join the exclusive, men-only club that Zuckerberg is excluded from in the film. "I actually went through the initiation process. I didn't join in the end, cos I was a leftie and politically really against it."
Compared with the more flamboyant US directors of his generation – Wes Anderson, say, or the famously abrasive David O Russell – Aronofsky has a low public profile, and is usually talked about only when he has a film out. But he suddenly found himself in the media spotlight in early November last year, when news broke of his split from his partner of eight years, the actress Rachel Weisz, with whom Aronofsky has a four-year-old son, Henry Chance Aronofsky. Gossip columns speculated about Weisz's closeness to her fellow British actor Daniel Craig, but neither partner has commented on the break. Their official statement reads, quite simply, "Rachel Weisz and Darren Aronofsky have been separated for some months. They remain close friends and are committed to raising their son together in NYC."
If they were already apart, it is hardly evident when I meet Aronofsky in October. In fact, he is the first to drop Weisz's name casually into the conversation when I ask him about the European influences on The Wrestler. "Rachel, my partner," he says, "is in the European Film Academy, so we get a stack of DVDs."
He talks about Weisz in the present tense, hardly suggesting any split is actual or imminent: of their living arrangements, he says, "We have a home in Camden," and when I ask whether the couple will be giving their son a Jewish upbringing, again it's in the present. "We haven't really figured that out yet. We celebrate the holidays, and just hang out, and he knows he's Jewish."
Weisz and Aronofsky made one film together – The Fountain in 2006, an ill-fated project that Aronofsky was due to shoot with Brad Pitt, until the star walked out late in the day. The $70m production collapsed – but Aronofsky, nothing if not resilient, eventually got the film made on about half that budget. An overtly mystical, triple-layered narrative set in the present, the cosmic future and 16th-century central America, The Fountain was booed in Venice and derided by the press – the film-trade magazine Variety dubbing it a "hippy trippy space odyssey meets contempo weepie meets conquistador caper".
Not unusually for directors whose pet projects get short shrift, Aronofsky defends The Fountain to the hilt. "I don't know if you've seen those boxes where you have to slide certain things and they open it up, but that's what we wanted to do – to kind of build a puzzle box that had a real beautiful jewel in the middle. It's an interesting film – the more time passes, the more I hear about that film over any other movie. It's always coming up and haunting people."
After that quixotic failure, Aronofsky made a much smaller film which, in both scope and style, came across as a sort of detox project – The Wrestler. The story of a professional bruiser past his prime, the film starred Mickey Rourke, who had himself been long written off as irreparably damaged goods. Rourke's enormously winning performance – physically strenuous, but also sensitive and self-mocking – helped win this brutally no-nonsense realist drama Venice's Golden Lion in 2008, recharging both Aronofsky's and Rourke's careers.
Even then, however, things didn't become easy overnight. "I don't know if it ever stops," Aronofsky says. "So far it's been endless hurdles. The Wrestler – one investor in the world. Black Swan – one investor in the world. Every one of these films, I get down to basically everyone in the world saying no, it's a constant barrage of nos – then eventually you find a route to get through it."
Not that Aronofsky has exactly been ignored by the studios. A devoted comics buff, he has been associated with a string of putative superhero projects over the years, including relaunches of Batman, Superman, even RoboCop. Now his comic-book debut seems to be happening at last – a new take on Marvel's Wolverine character has been announced as part of a deal that he has signed with 20th Century Fox.
You wonder how excited to get about this project, though. Comic-book films rarely inspire auteur directors to really distinctive results, and you wonder whether a superhero – even if he does have existential traumas and razor-edged adamantium claws – will have the touch of intense seriousness that distinguishes Aronofsky from his contemporaries. This is, after all, the man who once complained, "Tragedy is an art form that has been killed by Hollywood."
I ask Aronofsky whether he fancies himself as having the Machiavellian command of Vincent Cassel's Svengali-like ballet boss in Black Swan. "The truth is," he says, "I wish I could be as manipulative as Vincent's character, as I probably would be a lot more successful. I'm straightforward, and I've scared away many, many A-list actors by telling them how difficult things are going to be." (For example, Natalie Portman, 28 when she filmed Black Swan, trained hard for 10 months to dance the role of a much younger ingénue.) "I'm just very straightforward. I'm not really good at plotting three steps ahead. I'm more like..." he adopts a peremptory bark – "'OK, here's the problem, this is what we gotta do'. And that bluntness, which is very Brooklyn, is probably a problem for me."
His films can be pretty blunt, too; how does Aronofsky deal with the hostile responses they sometimes elicit? "As long as they're not... 'Eeh'," he says, imitating a pinched tone of blasé bewilderment. "As long as there's an intense reaction. I mean, in today's world, there's so much distraction – from videogames to the internet to other movies to TV to your iPod, texting, BlackBerrying, whatever. How do you get people's attention? I think you have to try to make lasting images that have a strong emotional content that is memorable, that people talk about – and tweet about," he adds, almost derisively. "There will always be a line that you cross for some people. The staple gun was a perfect example – that was a line that many people did not want to cross in their lifetime. It's about trying to create visceral experiences that people can connect to." Do you indulge in any of that stuff yourself? I ask. I mean tweeting, of course, but a wry smirk appears, just visible under Aronofsky's moustache. "Staple guns? Never."
'Black Swan' (15) is out on 21 January
Breaking pointe: The perils of a life at the barre
Whatever the fictions in Aronofsky's film, he got at least one thing right: dancers experience pain. From the moment a 12-year-old ballet student tries on her first pointe shoes – satin slippers with a hard lump of resin blocking one end to add height and facilitate turning – she signs up to a lifetime of discomfort, if not worse, as well as a raft of obsessive rituals intended to alleviate it.
Even without the joint-stress associated with loading the entire body weight on a few square centimetres of toe (and you wondered why dancers want to keep their weight down?), new shoes are uncomfortable and must be "broken in". This can include bashing them repeatedly against a wall, crushing them in a door, and heating the toe-box in order to soften the glue.
Since these practices also tend to shorten the shoes' life (which is, at best, 20 hours of moderate use), many dancers simply tolerate the pain and dance in new shoes until they are naturally supple.
Even then, there are further measures to be taken in the endless battle against blisters, split toenails, corns and – most dreaded of all – the development of bunions, in the form of gel pads and toe-spacers, tape or wads of lambswool wrapped around the toes.
Preventing cramps and muscle injury is even more of a palaver. Darcey Bussell, so easy and fresh-looking on stage, was a bundle of seemingly cranky habits before and after, swaddling herself like a walking duvet in specially constructed down-padded garments, in order to stop her leg and back muscles painfully seizing up.
Merrill Ashley, former principal dancer of the New York City Ballet, the company Aronofsky used as his model for Black Swan, is now living with the physical damage of a decade at the top. Like most of her ballet friends, she had her hips replaced as a 40th birthday present to herself.
In her time, Ashley was the speediest mover at City Ballet, and favourite of company founder George Balanchine for anything fast and technical. "Balanchine liked to challenge me, by inventing steps he thought were impossible," she recalls. "We somehow found a way."
Ashley had already developed bunions by this time, and was plagued by other injuries, to the extent that she would surreptitiously change a ballet's choreography. "A dancer always has pain," she says. "You learn to live with it. What's weird is that when you're on stage you sometimes don't feel it. You're anaesthetised by the adrenaline and thrill."
Jenny Gilbert, Independent on Sunday dance critic