Darren Aronofsky sees his newest film "Black Swan" as the companion piece to "The Wrestler."
"Black Swan" made its world premiere as the opening film at the Venice Film Festival's 67th edition on Wednesday, bringing the American director back to the Lido, where "The Wrestler" won the top Golden Lion prize two years ago.
"The more I looked into the world of ballet, I actually started to see all these similarities to the world of wrestling," the 41-year-old Aronofsky said at a news conference. "They both have these performers that use their bodies in sort of extremely, intense physical ways. Their entire performance is based on intense physicality."
The psychological melodrama is set in the world of New York City ballet and stars Natalie Portman as a perfection-seeking ballerina keen to win the role of prima-ballerina now that the long-reigning star is retiring. She is smothered by her overprotective mother, played by Barbara Hershey, a former dancer who, in one of many dichotomies in the film, may be acting out of concern for her daughter's well-being or jealousy over her success.
Old jealousies and new rivalries are central to the drama, and it's no surprise that much of the tension and duality is expressed in the figures of the White Swan, the perfectionist, and the Black Swan, the unrepressed inner-self.
Portman, who danced as a child, started to train a year before filming for the part.
"Six months ahead of the film, I went into sort of hyper-training, where five hours a day I was doing both ballet and cross-training, with swimming," Portman said. "A few months before was when we started getting into the choreography. It was very extreme."
Benjamin Millepied, a dancer who appeared in the film and who provided entree into the ballet world, said the training included a Russian dancer's focus on upper-body and head coordination — and many of Portman's dancing scenes focus tightly, sometimes dizzily, on her upper half.
As in "The Wrestler," Aronofsky does not spare viewers from the physical realities of the protagonist's world. Portman's "Nina" unwraps her feet after pushing herself through a series of pirouettes to find her big toe nail painfully split and bloodied. That is only part of her physical suffering, and the cause of which is mysterious.
The film is shot with a muted palate and in a grainy style that Aronofsky said was meant to merge the highly stylistic mood of his earlier work and the documentary style used in "The Wrestler."
Unlike other worlds that Aronofsky has been welcomed into when he proposed a film, the insular ballet universe had no interest in opening its doors, the director said.
"They just all shrugged and didn't return calls," Aronofsky said. "Slowly, through meeting Benjamin and a couple of other people, we got the stamp of approval that we were trying to do something cool. ... We tried to capture as much of that reality in a real documentary sense."
And if he failed? "We are terrified of the ballet backlash," Aronofsky jested. "These dancers are very dangerous."
While in the program notes Aronofsky said he hoped that theaters would double-bill "Black Swan" and "The Wrestler," the director told reporters that the reality in the era of new media and ever-changing delivery platforms is evolving to be otherwise.
"Who knows if any of us will be showing films in movie theaters when you've got your iPod and iPad all the time," Aronofsky said. "We made jokes the whole time about doing an iPad mix when we were mixing the film because probably most people on this planet will see it on some sort of device. They won't see it in a big theater."
At Venice, "Black Swan" premiered on the big screen at the Lido's glitzy Casino, the first billing in a rare opening night triple-header along with Andrew Lau's "Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen," and Robert Rodriguez's "Machete" — both playing out of competition.
"Machete," the story of a border vigilante starring Danny Trejo, along with Jessica Alba as an FBI agent tackling illegal immigration, started out as a faux trailer, and then was expanded into a feature-length film after audiences responded with enthusiasm.
Rodriguez said the appeal was in seeing a Hispanic character portrayed as a super hero, played by Trejo, a character actor who has appeared in 179 films.
"Danny should have been the lead all along. He just was never given the opportunity," Rodriguez said.
"Black Swan" is one of 23 films, one still unannounced, vying for the Golden Lion, which will be awarded Sept. 11.