Portman mesmerizing as ballerina in 'Black Swan'

Darren Aronofsky's disturbing “Black Swan” chronicles in exquisite, excruciating detail how a control-freak ballerina pirouettes off into the abyss of madness and obsession.

This psychological drama is part Hitchcock's “Psycho,” Roman Polanski's “Repulsion” and Herbert Ross' “The Turning Point,” all permeated with a Cronenbergian addiction to physiological ickiness.

It tells the story of Nina, a longtime ballet dancer played by Natalie Portman, who reportedly prepared for her physically demanding role for nearly a year. The work paid off, because her portrait of a dancer is astonishing and convincing in its detail and execution, at least to the untrained eye of a mass audience.

Nina lives with her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), a slightly embittered former ballet star now living off the fumes of her daughter's meager success with her prestigious New York dance company.

The company is preparing to launch the classic “Swan Lake,” and the meticulously committed Nina could be up for the dual roles of the good White Swan and the evil Black Swan.

She has the nice White Swan nailed. It's the naughty Black Swan that makes her manipulative director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) think she can't handle the role. Her technical craftsmanship is masterful, but her dancing lacks passion and feeling.

“I want to be perfect,” Nina says.

“Perfection isn't just about control!” Leroy barks. “It's also about losing yourself!”

We suspect Nina's a virgin, especially as her unhealthy relationship with her obsessive, clinging and domineering mommy unfolds.

They live together, and it's possible that poor Nina has never had the opportunity to be by herself with a man, let alone develop a relationship with one.

Driven by her relentlessly critical mother and by her own obsession to be perfect, Nina auditions for “Swan Lake,” and the pressure to be the best slowly loosens the dancer's grip on reality. She begins to pick at the blazing red rash on her back, a patch that grows angrier every time she touches it.

Nina has nightmares of being pursued by a dark, costumed dancer, her own evil Black Swan. She begins to slide into a distorted, paranoid world, and Aronofsky ingeniously captures the mood in a shot of her dressing room where numerous mirrors physically fragment Nina's skewed view of reality.

Then comes the straw that probably breaks Nina. A new dancer named Lily (Mila Kunis) joins the company. She is technically flawed and sloppy, but she radiates sexuality, seduction and surrender, perfect for the Black Swan.

Leroy would be insane to cast Lily, but he dangles that possibility before Nina to push her into discovering her hidden darker nature. To push her over the edge.

“Black Swan” effortlessly escorts us into Nina's paranoia with living daydreams and nightmares, some violent, some overtly sexual. Aronofsky dabbles in the sort of hallucinatory sleight-of-narrative perfected by Brian De Palma, but never crosses into the realm of exploitation or cheap shock value.

Aronofsky previously explored performance egos pushed to the max to stay in the spotlight with “The Wrestler,” starring Mickey Rourke as a tragic, aging performer struggling to remain in the ring.

In “Black Swan,” Aronofsky envelopes us in Nina's world, capturing intoxicating dance sequences with fluid, gravity-defying lenses that float in, between and around the performers as the cameras become de facto participants in the intricate choreography.

Portman is a revelation in this movie. She immerses herself into a complex, flawed character as we've never seen her do before.

French actor Cassel commands his scenes with quiet authority, and why not? He studied ballet for eight years in New York and France, and incorporates that experience into his self-serving director.

Of the major actors in “Black Swan,” only Winona Ryder gets shortchanged as Beth MacIntyre, the company star and Leroy's former flame of convenience before her age bumps her out of the limelight to make room for the next celebrated diva. (Surely, there must be a lot of Ryder's footage cut from this version.)

Is “Black Swan” a horror movie?

Yes. And no.

Aronofsky has created an intricate portrait of a soul unraveling, and it's just as much a tragedy evoking sadness and sympathy as feelings of horror.

<p><b>“Black Swan”</b></p>

<p>Rating: ★★★½</p>

<p>Starring: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder</p>

<p>Directed by: Darren Aronofsky</p>

<p>Other: A Fox Searchlight release. At the Century Centre and River East 21 in Chicago, and the Evanston Century 12. Rated R for drug use, nudity, violence, sexual situations. 110 minutes</p>