class=”alignleft size-large wp-image-59499″ title=”international black swan poster” src=”×600.jpg” alt=”” width=”235″ height=”352″ />The vivid and gripping Black Swan is one part Jungian psycho thriller, one part horror movie, and one part backstage drama, and while not the masterpiece some have proclaimed it to be, it’s a thoroughly entertaining ride, driven by an enthralling and very physical performance from Golden Globe winner Natalie Portman.

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a dancer with a New York ballet company, a clearly neurotic young woman who is nonetheless an ambitious perfectionist. The company’s bullying artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to stage a re-imagined version of ‘Swan Lake’ to launch their new season, and he seizes the opportunity to bring a dancer up from the ranks to replace the company’s aging prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) in the dual lead roles of the Swan Queen (the White and Black Swans). After narrowing the field amongst the company’s very competitive soloists, who all desperately want the role, Thomas chooses Nina for the lead. While she is perfect as the virginal and pure White Swan, the question remains whether Nina can find and embrace within herself the darkness required to effectively portray the villain of the piece, the Black Swan.

The film cleverly plays out the duality that is the heart of the story (good/evil, black/white, introversion/extroversion) through constant visual doubling and POV shots seen as reflections; it would be an amusing exercise to count the number of times Nina scrutinises herself in windows and mirrors (a new drinking game, perhaps). All of the other key women in the film, who represent either an aspect of her character or a potential outcome for a ballerina, strongly resemble Nina also: her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer who smothers her daughter while pushing her to have the kind of celebrated career she didn’t have; the earthy and uninhibited Lily (Mila Kunis), the extrovert to Nina’s introvert; and prima ballerina Beth, depressed and unable to accept that her career is at an end.

Pushed by her mother and Thomas to succeed at all costs, and pulled by the beguiling (and possibly threatening) Lily to unleash her sensuality by indulging in hedonistic abandon, Nina struggles to engage with her shadow and become the complete artist she desperately longs to be. As her tentative grip on reality loosens, the reliability of Nina’s point of view gradually disintegrates as she begins to see herself not just in reflective surfaces, but literally in the faces of others. Natalie Portman’s delicate beauty has always suggested fragility, and it has never been utilised more effectively than it is here; the great supporting players certainly hold their end up, but every one of the film’s 110 minutes belong to Ms. Portman, who shoulders the burden of her role with complete commitment.

Black Swan owes a small debt to Roman Polanski’s mid ’60s masterpiece Repulsion, another tale of a repressed beauty’s psychological breakdown as she struggles to deal with her baser instincts; the scenes of Nina walking the narrow halls of the apartment she shares with her mother feel like a direct nod to the claustrophobic halls of Catherine Deneuve’s apartment. There are hints of David Cronenbergian body horror as well, with bizarre physical transformation that harks back to The Fly and wince inducing shots of damaged digits and other mangled flesh. Composer Clint Mansell does his part to up the film’s shock ante too, blending Tchaikovsky’s dramatic ‘Swan Lake’ with his own score, laying great stabs, slashes and punches of music over top of the film’s ‘behind you!’ moments.

The film’s sheer visual and aural bombast does mean that it teeters on the brink of overwrought many times, and as clever as it is, its technical precision feels too mechanical and calculated at times. For me, director Aronofsky has yet to surpass his eyeball-searing, stomach-churning addiction drama Requiem For a Dream, but Black Swan is an intriguing, and, dare I say it, fun film, and the wonderful Natalie Portman is fully deserving of the many accolades and statuettes she will receive during the current awards season (even if that does mean my own favourite Jennifer Lawrence being beaten out).