Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassell

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin

Fox Searchlight

“Lose yourself” is the advice artistic director Thomas (Vincent Cassell) gives to Nina (Natalie Portman), the ambitious young ballerina he has chosen to dance the lead in his company’s new production of “Swan Lake.” But Nina is a scared, tentative young dancer whose fragility embodies the White Swan. Her technique is flawless, but does she have the guile and the sensuality to effectively play the Black Swan? Or will Thomas replace her with the provocative Lily (Mila Kunis), Nina’s perceived rival and could-be best friend?

Mila Kunis as Lily

Ironically, while Nina spends the majority of Black Swan’s running time trying to find her inner black swan by loosening her grip on her tightly controlled life (which includes evading the clutches of her loving but overly protective mother, played by Barbara Hershey), her director, Darren Aronofsky, maintains absolute control, creating a powerful and visceral film about the struggle artists go through to find perfection, a struggle which could prove fatal for Nina.

Kudos first to Portman. This is her film, and while Nina’s fearfulness and paranoia could easily be annoying, she makes us empathize with her character’s predicament, with Aronofsky evoking the high-pressure world of New York ballet she has to endure with a jealous look here, a close-up of straining feet there. Kunis, meanwhile, after her charming role in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” proves herself to be quite the secret weapon; she conveys Lily’s power without making it obvious whether or not she’s actually “after” Nina. And their much-talked-about sex scene? It’s deserving of the talk, although perverts looking to feast on flesh may be disappointed.

Thomas (Vincent Cassell) chats with Nina (Natalie Portman)

As to Black Swan’s horror bona fides, Aronofsky is totally channelling the paranoia and creeping dread of Roman Polanski (think “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Tenant” and “Repulsion”), although it’s always homage, never rip-off. Nina thinks she might be transforming literally into a black swan, and the hints, suggested through contact lenses, subtle CG and seamless make-up, are creepy. Aronofsky masterfully inserts momentary images to up the tension, and the atmosphere becomes increasingly tense, almost imperceptibly, until the blood-drenched climax.

Natalie Portman as Nina

The mainstream (and releasing studio) has labelled Black Swan a “psychological thriller,” “horror” perhaps being too downmarket a tag for such an A-list release. But make no mistake: by the time Nina takes the stage for her grand entrance as the Black Swan, you’ll be both thrilled and frightened.

Rating: 4/5

Black Swan opens in limited release December 3.

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