A slight madness seemed to set in upon leaving Century Theatres after watching Darren Aronofsky’s hyper-psychological “Black Swan.”

Though the latest dissection of the obsessed from the stylistic auteur (“Pi,” “Requiem for a Dream”) was extraordinary, at times a reprieve – jotting notes for this review – was welcome. Mr. Aronofsky is so unnervingly adept at expressing the visual and aural tics of insanity that even this “seen-it-all-before” critic needed time for a breather.

Natalie Portman is exceptional as Nina, a perfectionist ballerina in a fledgling New York Company, who finally finds herself vying for the lead after fading star Beth (Winona Ryder) is deemed too old by callous, and possibly sexually deviant (or perhaps brilliantly motivational), director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel is superb in this role). After landing the lead in “Swan Lake,” Nina is consumed with trying to play the dual roles of the virginal, perfect white swan and the sexual, flawed black swan.

Ballet director Thomas accelerates Nina’s self-flagellation by expressing his doubts over her ability to embrace the deviance of the black swan, calling her frigid and advising her to go home and masturbate as research for the role. This is a problem, as mid-to-late-20s Nina still lives at home with her doting (to say the least) former-ballerina mother (Barbara Hershey). The latter is either a caring, hands-on mother or obsessive, painting pictures of her daughter and decorating her room like that of a 12-year-old, music box and all.

Enter Lily, stage left. Mila Kunis has come a long way from the part of the vacuous Jackie of the stoner sitcom “That ‘70s Show.” With star turns in the romantic comedy “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and the black comedy “Extract,” Ms. Kunis is the dark spark in “Black Swan,” carefree and sexually liberated. Her uninhibited attitude and unrestrained dance draws the attention of Thomas. Lily either wants
to befriend Nina, taking her to clubs and allowing the tightly wound star to relax with booze and drugs, or she is looking to upend Nina’s focus, hoping to claim the lead as her own, which would not be unheard of on the stage.

 Their tumultuous relationship winds up taking center stage, and as Nina’s self-mutilations (imagined or real) worsen, and Lily’s star rises, the film finally gives resonance to the overused phrase, “She’s trying to destroy me!”

 Whether she is or is not, Mr. Aronofsky brilliantly sheds a pertinent amount of light through his lens. While one can tell what is going on during a supposed lesbian sex scene between the two young women, thanks to the director’s use of doppelganger mirror images, nothing is ever explicitly stated, leaving everything still up for discussion. For instance, the camera may be lying to the audience when showing Nina’s self-inflicted scratches; these may be real, or perhaps more disturbing, may be the manifestations of her mother’s psychological scars passed to her daughter.

 “Black Swan” is not recommended for parents with daughters hoping to go off to college to study dance, or for those who like a straightforward plot with the ends tied nice and neat.

 Those, however, who admire cinema’s ability to unnerve, to claw at the skin like sharp fingernails and leave scars for the psyche to dissect and ponder, simply must not miss this film. Unlike Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan” lacks heart, but is brimming with the soul of a tortured artist.

Rated R for strong sexual content,
disturbing violent images, language
and some drug use.