BLACK SWAN is danse macabre personified, a grueling, tragic, obsessive and gripping film about a ballerina's quest for perfection at the expense of personality and sanity. Director Darren Aronofsky dances between beauty and blight, juxtaposing familiar ballet images (poised dancers with their lithe limbs and pintucked buns, impossibly balanced on the tips of their pink-shoed toes, silhouetted under the stagelights) with horrific ones (bleeding toenails, bony spines, skin scratched raw). The effect is unsettling, frightening even. Sometimes it all feels a little too much -- thankfully, not often.
The actors are in fine form: Kunis is bold and electrifying; Hershey, disquieting; Cassel, layered. Only Ryder, as a washed-up dancer, wobbles, playing Beth with an assured-yet-predictable touch. But the movie really is Portman's. Her Nina is devastatingly fearful, dispiritingly fragile. She has command of her body but not her mind, and Portman, committed from first pirouette to the final moment, disappears. Only Nina remains. Cue the best actress awards.