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Movies: Black Swan * * * * *

Darren Aronofsky has been interested in the blood and suffering that lurk behind the exquisite veneer of ballet since his sister trained to be a dancer as a young girl.

He has said that Black Swan is intended to be a companion piece to his previous film, The Wrestler, and while the low and high arts of wrestling and ballet would appear to have little in common, Aronofsky's work draws undeniable parallels. In particular, the director seems fascinated by a self-destructive drive for perfection, and by the performer's masochistic contempt for an insufficiently responsive body.

But while The Wrestler was a gritty drama in a minor key, Black Swan is Grand Guignol, an overpowering gothic extravaganza that starts out as a knowingly slushy melodrama and ends in out-and-out horror. In fact, to seek to confine it in terms of genre seems almost disrespectful, for so arrogantly does Aronofsky's film cast aside the movie rule-book that it soars beyond any kind of meaningful classification. Excessive, cheesy, brilliant and wildly ambitious, it will annoy some, delight others but bore absolutely no one.

In the performance of her life, Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers, a brittle but talented young dancer in a New York ballet company. When the company decides to mount a production of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) announces that he intends to dump his ageing prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) and find a younger replacement.

Nina is among the favourites to land the part, but there's a problem. Swan Lake will require its lead dancer to play two roles: that of the pure and angelic Odette, a princess who's been turned into a white swan by an evil sorceress, and her seductive and sensual sister, the black swan. Nina's technique is flawless, but Thomas Leroy believes she lacks the passion to play the black swan. And as Nina strains every sinew in an attempt to prove him wrong, she faces just as much pressure at home.

Her mother, Erica, is a grade-A fruitbat, a failed dancer who is living vicariously through Nina. Erica's obsession with Nina's success has played havoc with the girl's development: she's sexually stunted, has literally no life outside ballet, and goes to sleep every night surrounded by childhood dolls and teddy bears. And while she has always dreamt of playing Odette, the pressure of preparing for the role sends her into a tailspin.

Aronofsky tells Nina's story exclusively from her point of view, using handheld cameras and grainy close-ups to create an unsettlingly intimate portrait of a spectacular nervous breakdown. Flitting constantly between her fevered fantasies and the sad reality, Black Swan mirrors the story of Swan Lake but also deals with the struggle for artistic perfection that can drive individuals over the edge. On top of that it's a lurid horror film, a cunningly expanded chiller with moments that will make you spill your popcorn.

Every film has a rhythm, and Aronofsky brilliantly accumulates both tension and emotion as the film charges towards a breathtaking set-piece conclusion. Cassel is excellent as Thomas, a strutting peacock who adopts a droit de seigneur approach to his female dancers. Barbara Hershey, her creepiness enhanced by a frightful facelift, is tremendous as Nina's batty mother, and Mila Kunis is very good as Lily, a dancing rival who is everything that Nina (and Ms Portman) is not -- sensual, sexy, spontaneous and alive.

Ms Portman's performance is comparable to Robert De Niro's in Raging Bull in the sense that the physical privations she endured in preparing for it in the end become inseparable from those of her character. Portman flutters her arms so frantically while dancing that she looks like she's trying to take off and escape both Nina's fate and this grisly film. She will surely win an Oscar.

Most Hollywood films are carefully planned and marketed to the point of extinction, but Black Swan is a mad, brave extravaganza that has emerged not from a committee but fully formed from one man's head. It's sort of magnificent, and one of those movies you should probably go and see.

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