Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, which opened the Venice Film Festival last night, is bravura moviemaking: a wildly ambitious psychodrama about a ballerina consumed with angst and jealousy as she prepares for her biggest role. The film looks bound to win its star, Natalie Portman, plaudits and award nominations for her searing performance as the ambitious but insecure Nina.
Some of the international press in Venice seemed discomfited by the sheer extravagance of Aronofsky's directorial style – his attempts to introduce thriller and even horror movie elements to what at first seems a traditional backstage story. Like Nina herself, the director often risks losing his footing but that is what makes the filmmaking so exhilarating. Some scenes are overwrought. Others (notably a clumsily shot lesbian sequence) verge on the prurient. More often, the effect is enthralling.
The plot is set around rehearsals for what the choreographer (Vincent Cassel in Diaghilev mode) promises will be a raw and primal version of Swan Lake. Nina is technically adept but her dancing lacks passion. She lives at home with her domineering mother (Barbara Hershey), who treats her as a child. The choreographer knows that she could excel as the "white swan" but has severe doubts that "such a frigid girl" can play the character's much darker double, the "black swan". She convinces him to cast her but during rehearsals, Nina becomes increasingly obsessed with a new rival at the company (Mila Kunis), who looks like her but who is uninhibited and sexually precocious.
Aronofsky nods to Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes (with its equally ambitious and self-destructive lead dancer) and Ingmar Bergman's Persona.
On the face of it, the New York ballet scene depicted here is, although combative, far from the grungy, blue-collar world in Aronofsky's previous feature, The Wrestler. But the director makes the same heavy physical demands on Portman that he did on Mickey Rourke for that film. Not only is the dancing punishing, much of the feature is about the dancer off-duty, alone and prey to dark imaginings. She self-harms, scratching long red cuts in her back.
Aronofsky takes a fetishistic pleasure in showing the ballerina's agonising, callused toes. He uses Tchaikovsky's music at full blast for the scenes that show Nina in the claustrophobic world of her apartment or dressing-room. Portman's performance is courageous, capturing Nina's naïveté and ferocious ambition.
Nina's ascent comes at the expense of an older, emotionally combustible ballerina (Winona Ryder), forced to make way for her. Others in the chorus are also fiercely jealous of her success.
The idea of the ballerina so obsessed by her desire for perfection that she dances herself toward destruction may be clichéd, but when executed with this much brio and imagination, it resonates.