“Black Swan”

Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Hollywood history is filled with actors who gave career-defining performances that were so outstanding that they were absolutely guaranteed to win Academy Awards.  Some recent examples include: Charlize Theron in “Monster” (2003); Jamie Foxx in “Ray” (2004); Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Capote” (2005); Helen Mirren in “The Queen” (2006); Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds” (2009); and Mo’Nique in “Precious” (2009).

So, barring any interference from Annette Bening (who could emerge as the sentimental favorite to win for “The Kids Are All Right”), this year’s frontrunner for Best Actress has to be Natalie Portman for “Black Swan.”  As a naïve, insecure, competitive and self-mutilating ballerina who loses her sanity amidst mounting pressure from every turn, Portman – a Supporting Actress-nominee for 2004’s “Closer” – gives a fiercely committed performance that’s physically grueling, emotionally devastating and always exhilarating.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg on a mesmerizing and spectacular movie that explores the darker sides of ambition, obsession and jealousy that defined such classics as 1950’s “All About Eve,” 1954’s “A Star is Born” and, of course, 1977’s ballet-themed “The Turning Point.”  But as directed by Darren Aronofsky, and as written by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz, “Black Swan” is a brilliantly intense psychological thriller that ultimately remains in a class all by itself.

Portman plays Nina, a talented, but timid dancer who will do anything to land the lead role of the Swan Queen in her ballet company’s production of “Swan Lake.”  Her main competition is Lily (Mila Kunis), a confident and manipulative newcomer who is Nina’s polar opposite, but she is also under scrutiny from her demanding artistic director (Vincent Cassel) and her overbearing stage mother (Barbara Hershey).  With her grip on reality slowly slipping away, Nina vows to give a pitch-perfect performance – even if it’s the last thing she ever does.

Given how vividly “Black Swan” explores the physical and emotional tolls – not to mention the loneliness – of Nina’s profession, it’s the perfect companion piece to Aronofsky’s last movie, “The Wrestler.”  But it also does a brilliant job of matching Nina’s inner turmoil with that of the Swan Queen she is so obsessed with playing.  To that extent, “Black Swan” is “Swan Lake” – a dark, twisted and melodramatic rendition of Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet that will keep you guessing as to where Nina’s reality ends and where her nightmare begins.

Yet as gripping as Portman’s turn is, the success of the entire film hangs on her ability to pull off the delicate moves of an experienced ballerina – which she does very well.  Beyond that, Portman is part of an excellent cast that includes Oscar-worthy performances from Mila Kunis as Nina’s brash, sexy and overly ambitious rival, French actor Vincent Cassel as the choreographer who pushes her to the limit, Winona Ryder as Nina’s predecessor who falls from grace, and Barbara Hershey as her jealous and domineering mother.

For a film with a reported budget of around $15 million, “Black Swan” sure looks like it cost a lot more to make.  And it gets better with repeated viewings, thanks to visual tricks with mirrors (and the nature of Kunis’s character) that might be missed the first time around.  It all adds up to Darren Aronofsky’s best movie yet, but it’s also a turning point for Natalie Portman, whose career-defining performance absolutely deserves an Academy Award for Best Actress.