"Black Swan" is an intense, gripping psychodrama that moves along a precipice between the transcendent art of ballet and a dark decent into madness.

"Black Swan" is an intense, gripping psychodrama that moves along a precipice between the transcendent art of ballet and a dark decent into madness.

The performances are astonishingly good.

First, ballet — no matter its patina of delicacy and seemingly fragile beauty, composed of movement to music that stirs and inspires — also is a sport practiced by athletes who give new meaning to the concepts of preparation, brutally hard work and unflinching commitment.

And it is this aching sacrifice that is, ultimately, at the center of "Black Swan." A young woman, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), who has been insulated most of her life by the constraints of ballet and by a controlling, domineering mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), is, to her astonishment, cast as the prima ballerina in the dual role of the black swan (Odile) and the white swan (Odette) in "Swan Lake."

The role is an obvious metaphor for this young woman, naïve, protected, talented and now confronted, almost ruthlessly, by the director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), to explore her dark side, to let go, to find the visceral and the real in the role of Odile. When she dances as the white swan, she is controlled perfection. But it's when she dances as the black swan that she is bound by restraint and even fear. Great art, Leroy tells her, means letting go.

And so Nina's metamorphosis begins, and the film moves incrementally into layers of brilliant, wrenching dysfunction. What is real and what is delusional becomes increasingly blurred as she descends into a world of such pressure that her ability to cope begins to fray. Pressure makes diamonds, but for an athlete as disciplined and intensely trained as a prima ballerina, it can be unyielding.

A narrative such as that found in "Black Swan" begs to be put on the couch and discussed using the familiar pop-psych language that has so infused the last decades: yin, yang; mother,-daughter issues; a seductive, even abusive director; a brittle soul in a world that can be harsh and hard; red flags of overwhelming anxiety and madness ignored in the name of an enchanted story about a woman transformed into a swan by a mad sorcerer, a tale elevated to the sublime by the music of Tchaikovsky. But this film is more than a deliberative, psychological study of a compelling, fragmenting character. "Black Swan" is, at times, unhinged, yet also lovely and compelling.

Tangentially, director Aronofsky directed "The Wrestler," a film about another public performer who endures until he is confronted with a moment of sacrifice from which he may never recover. The two films are not entirely dissimilar.