4/5 “I just want to be perfect” whispers a haunting female voice over a music box playing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. By now you’ve heard or read something about Black Swan, the newest project from the mind of director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler). Buzz or criticism, everybody who’s seen it has an opinion; so is it highly overrated or greatly misunderstood? Is there a first Oscar waiting for Aronofsky or Portman or both?

Aspiring dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman, The Professional, V For Vendetta) struggles to distinguish herself in the eyes of ballet director Thomas (Vincent Cassel, Ocean’s Thirteen, Eastern Promises) who is hesitant to cast her as lead ballerina in the company’s upcoming recital. Swan Lake, insists Thomas, demands a dancer able to embody both the black and the white swan, both the passionate and the precise; frustratingly, Nina’s impeccable technique proves her peerless for only half the role. At first, the arrival of free-spirited newcomer Lily (Kunis) further aggravates Nina in her situation, but in the fight to shed her inhibitions and explore her darker side, Nina realizes Lily is less the competition than the perfect companion. The transformation from the white to black swan comes painfully and at a great price, but Nina gradually overcomes her ambivalence in pursuit of perfection.

Like its central subject of ballet, Black Swan is a spectacle completely focused on the performance of its female lead—a role Natalie Portman plays beautifully. Of course, playing the part of Nina—both highly skilled ballet dancer and complex psychological character—could not, and did not, come easily. Portman began training a year ahead of filming to dance the part, and it shows—at least to an untrained eye. No plié or pirouette betrays her persona, which is a remarkable feat considering the difficulty of ballet and the fact that she performs almost all of the choreography herself. Aside from the dancing, Portman’s portrayal of Nina at all stages of her terrifying transfiguration leaves nothing left to desire. While it is still too early to say with certainty, this will have to be a year of incredible lead actresses if Natalie Portman is denied an Oscar nomination.

Imagine watching your house slowly collapse. You are not watching from a safe distance away. In fact, you are not outside at all. You are inside; all around you the walls crack, the ceiling crumbles, the paint peels, and the pipes burst. Your house, in this illustration, is Nina’s tortured psyche—an imploding structure, made threatening by the immersive experience delivered by deliberate writing, sound-editing and cinematography. Black Swan is not, by any measure, an easy movie to sit through; certain scenes, motifs, and sounds will make you squirm, wince, or cringe reflexively. The discomfort is a device designed to coerce the viewer into experiencing instead of sympathizing; its persistent application effectively forces the viewer into her ‘pointe’ ballet shoes, rendering most discussions concerning reality versus fantasy moot. In other words, pinpointing which events are real and which are imagined is utterly pointless, because the blurry line in between is the point.

Dark, disturbing and detailed, Darren Aronofsky’s latest macabre creation is a highly worked narrative brought to life by Natalie Portman showcasing a new height of acting prowess. Aronofsky’s auteur directing style will never be ‘for everyone’ but the rate at which he develops his craft virtually ensures his place as one of the influential directors in contemporary American cinema.