That Aronofsky's Black Swan takes place in the rarefied spheres of the dance world - with its thoroughbred ballerinas, sinewy and high-strung - makes the nutty psychodrama somehow all the more intriguing.
Here is Nina (Portman), wrapped in a fluffy scarf, stepping from the subway and trooping off to rehearsals at Lincoln Center. Her whole life revolves around dance. There's a music-box ballerina in her bedroom - a bedroom still filled with the plush toys of her childhood, a bedroom in a cramped apartment she shares with her mother (Barbara Hershey), herself a dancer so many years before.
A new production of Swan Lake - stripped-down, primal, "real" - is on the season's slate, and the company's artistic director, Thomas Leroy (French actor Vincent Cassel), is looking for a new Odette/Odile to fill the pointe shoes left by his retiring prima ballerina, Beth MacIntyre (a just-this-side-of-camp Winona Ryder). Fiercely disciplined, Nina seems perfect for the part of the innocent, elegant White Swan, but Leroy expresses concerns that she doesn't have the sensuality, the slyness, to play her darker doppelganger.
Enter a new member to the troupe, Lilly (a cagey, sexy Mila Kunis), just in from San Francisco. She's as uninhibited and earthy as Nina is tamped-down and tightly wound. It's clear that Leroy sees star potential there.
Will Nina get the role? Will Lilly? Are Leroy's motives purely artistic? Are Lilly's overtures to Nina a guileless signal of friendship, or some sinister plot to usurp her position in the company?
Portman, in the role of her career, oozes anxiety and aching loneliness. Here is a young woman overwhelmed by her dreams and ambitions, sexually repressed, smothered by her mother, and in physical pain from the intense regimen of dance. But also in self-inflicted pain: She picks and claws her body apart like a dog gnashing at itself.
If you thought the bloody stuff Mickey Rourke's character subjected himself to in The Wrestler was tough (remember the staple gun?), Portman's Nina puts herself through even more torture and torment. Black Swan is, at times, exceedingly difficult to watch.
And then there are moments when you just can't help but laugh. And that seems fine.
Portman, shot mostly in closeup and mid-range, appears to be doing much of the dance work herself, and ably. Members of the Pennsylvania Ballet lend verisimilitude and artistry to the proceedings, and the staging of Swan Lake's climactic scenes, truly a transcendent fusion of music, dance, and cinema, is thrilling to behold.
Thrilling, indeed. And brazenly, beautifully crazy.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies