On my second trip to Toronto International Film Festival in 2008, two of my favorite filmmakers were coming off different ambitious and critically mixed sci-fi projects. Danny Boyle had Sunshine and was premiering Slumdog Millionaire, while Darren Aronofsky came off The Fountain with the stripped-down character drama, The Wrestler.

Each ended up as my favorites of the year and threw the duo into Oscar spotlight. Now they are both back in 2010, each of their projects at the top of the must-see festival list. I’ll be seeing 127 Hours tomorrow, but this morning I was able to witness Aronofsky’s latest, the ballet thriller Black Swan.

As a spiritual successor to The Wrestler, the ties are apparent. There is a character’s inner struggle at the forefont, this time acted out hauntingly by Natalie Portman. The similar handheld style runs throughout adding a claustrophobic, intensely personal sensation.

After a gorgeous opening, the first two acts are a slow burn as Nina (Portman) attempts perfection while she tries for the lead role in a “visceral” rendition of Swan Lake, led by director Thomas Leroy, played with expected suave by Vincent Cassel.

Winona Ryder ironically plays Beth, the has-been dancer on her way out. With Portman rising to the top spot as Leroy’s new “little princess,” she is also in an immediate feud with Beth’s replacement from San Francisco. Mila Kunis is Lilly, the strangely back-and-forth friend/rival to Nina. As Nina projects her diffidence on Lilly, their relationship becomes tantalizing to say the least.

Like The Wrestler, one doesn’t need to have a previous attachment to the career at hand. Nina is a newcomer who is unsure of her potential and consistently being pushed to excel. As Portman gives a career performance, her conflict creates a familiar connection for anyone that has been overwhelmingly consumed in their field.

Where this diverts from The Wrestler is the added psychological and supernatural twists. Since they are the best moments of the film I won’t go into detail, but as Aronofsky delicately peels away the layers agonizing Nina, he is able to build to a climax that makes for his most compelling work thus far.

Continuing his relationship with composer Clint Mansell, we are given a rousing score that fits seamlessly. Whether it is the actual orchestral music accompanying the ballet or a frenetic blast of chords to heighten the drama there isn’t a wrong step.

The slight fault to find is the comedic aspects injected throughout. Cassel delivers a welcome handful, but as tension rises some of over-the-top situations warrant laughter, which pulled me out of the experience.

Fusing cerebral elements found in The Fountain with the disturbing comment on addiction in Requiem for a Dream, while continuing the raw character drama from The Wrestler, Aronofsky has crafted an arresting culmination of his work with Black Swan.

9.5 out of 10

Black Swan hits theaters December 1st.

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