Natalie Portman stars as a ballerina in Darren Aronofsky's latest offering so it's fitting the movie begins with her feet. We get a close-up of them while her character, Nina, wakes up one morning, stretching from her ankles down to her toes, bones popping and ligaments groaning like the ropes of an old ship.
During the next two hours we'll learn a lot about the abuse Nina's body takes, the camera locked on her while she tries out for the lead in Tchaikovsky's “Swan Lake.” “Black Swan,” with a brilliant performance by its star, goes much deeper than a typical behind-the-scenes story, fraught with peril that's as much psychological as physical. Nina's body is always on display and under duress — prodded, inspected, measured, criticized. But her mind also bears the strain: The cost of perfecting the former is the health of the latter.
When we first meet Nina she's just one of many dedicated dancers at an established New York City company, who gets on the subway and goes to the Lincoln Center with a mixture of hopefulness and apprehension. It's a new season; there will be tryouts for a new production of “Swan Lake,” and the lead is up for grabs, the previous occupant (Winona Ryder) deemed past her prime. Thus, even as Nina attempts to achieve her dream she sees what dangers lurk should she succeed: more stress, envy and competition, culminating in inevitable decline. In the end she's sent away without being able to finish her first tryout. She can barely make it home and get the door closed before bursting into tears. This is only the first day.
Nina, we will see, is always pressured but rarely encouraged. The main enforcer is Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), the company's autocratic director, a man who seems forever on the tips of his toes and ready to bite. A Svengali in Danskins, he knows how to pull his girls' strings. “If I were only casting the White Swan,” he tells Nina, who hangs on every syllable, “there'd be no question.” But the role requires equal parts grace and seduction, a quality Thomas thinks Nina lacks, though he appears prepared to draw it out by any means necessary.
“Black Swan” was directed by Aronofsky, who specializes in characters teetering on precarious psyches. Nina, though young and lithe and in her prime, bears similarities to Randy “The Ram” Robinson, the beaten-up and broken-down performer of Ram jams in Aronofsky's “The Wrestler.” The movie also recalls Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1948 film “The Red Shoes,” which also uses a story within a story to demonstrate a ballerina's fragility.
Nina is far more alone in her efforts than the character Moira Shearer played in the earlier film. She has no love interest, no jealous director, no posh, company-funded apartment for support. What she does have is a mother (Barbara Hershey) who coddles her to the point of suffocation, and a new friend, fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), whose overtures appear designed to undermine her. Aronofsky does an excellent job keeping us guessing who's on Nina's side and who's not, what's in her mind and what's not. Nina doesn't go crazy as much as lose her moorings a little. The difference helps make “Black Swan” a convincing thriller.
There are a couple of small mistakes. Ryder is miscast; the audience instinctively laughs when she first appears. And Nina's hallucinations give way here and there to overwrought hokum. Their conclusion is especially difficult to take. We can believe that Nina yearns for success so strenuously that she could harm herself to achieve it, but the result is drastic enough to be physically impossible.
It works best if you take it is as metaphor, or simply as giddy melodrama. “Black Swan” ends exactly how you hope, with Nina giving every last shred of herself in a dazzling finale. It's big and memorable, but just as important are the details that lead up to it. In a barely noticeable but beautifully poignant scene much earlier in the film, Nina strains to see encouragement from Thomas after an especially grueling rehearsal. He gives a little thumbs up, and Nina nearly collapses in satisfaction. In this world of hers, a kind gesture might have done more than the audience's overwhelming applause, and would have been more extraordinary. (R) 103 min.