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Swan Dive

Natalie Portman dances up a psychological storm

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Darren Aronofsky knows a lot about obsessions. In fact, he's consumed by them. The 41-year-old director's debut feature from 1998, Pi, is all about a mathematician's compulsive search for the answer to the universe. Requiem for a Dream, from 2000, falls even deeper, as four characters become ravaged by their addictions. And 2008's The Wrestler tells the story of an aging athlete who can't quit the body-breaking sport.

In Black Swan, a dancer's obsessions take on a life of their own. It's Aronofsky's most psychologically unhinged film, and it's one of the most twisted thrillers of the decade. It blurs reality as much as Inception, with an ending that will spark just as much debate.

Ballerina Nina Sayers (played by a beautifully fractured Natalie Portman) has finally scored her big break with the New York City Ballet, landing the lead role in Swan Lake, replacing the company's aging star ballerina (Winona Ryder). But a new dancer, Lily (Mila Kunis, strong in a rare dramatic role), goes deeper and darker, threatening Nina's star-making turn.

There's a mess of a backstory too: Nina's mom (Barbara Hershey) — a former ballerina who gave up her career after she gave birth — is still a major, and stifling, influence in her daughter's life. Then there's the issue of all the cuts that keep showing up on Nina's body — some more real than others.

We first meet Nina, appropriately, onstage, where she's being menaced by a giant black swan. It's just a dream, but it's key to the movie's secrets and desires. Nina is haunted — by insecurity, paranoia, and surreal visions. Before she lands her dream role, we catch a glimpse of the dancers' backstage cattiness, something Nina stays away from as she compulsively preps her ballet shoes for rehearsal — another key to the film's secrets and desires.

Portman is terrific in the lead, especially as Nina begins to unravel. Is it pressure? Is it something from her past? Is she just messed up? Yes, yes, and yes. Nina is the perfect white swan: sweet, innocent, graceful. But she can't tap into her dark side for the black swan's more aggressive and sexual moves. Lily, on the other hand, embodies this sinister half: She's careless and impudent, she smokes, and she has a giant tattoo running across her back.

Aronofsky positions the rivalry (which turns into a tentative relationship) between the two dancers as mostly one-sided. Kunis' sly and subtle performance never lets on if Lily is ever a real threat to Nina. But we immediately side with Nina. She rejects her director's advances, she's brimming with self-doubt, and her overbearing mother is enough to drive anyone nuts.

But as her paranoia and obsessions increase, she becomes less reliable as the movie's protagonist. In one scene, she peels away at the skin on her arm, revealing deep, bloody abrasions. A second later, the cuts are missing. Nina's breakdown is slow but severe, as Aronofsky meticulously clues us in to her madness.

There are moments in Black Swan that are as compassionate as The Wrestler, as destructive as Requiem for a Dream, and as totally mindfucking as Pi. It's Aronofsky's most fluid movie and one of the year's best — a masterful psychological thriller that pulls you along to its dark, devastating end. Send feedback to mgallucci@clevescene.com.

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