It makes film study so much easier when a movie announces its own interpretation in the opening reel, and Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is very helpful in this way—like an open-book exam right before winter break. "We open the season with Swan Lake, " declares Vincent Cassel's ballet director to his New York City company. "Done to death, I know. But not like this. We strip it down, and make it real." Aronofsky opens the Christmas movie season with Black Swan, a clammy, upscale horror flick with Natalie Portman as the dancer whose metamorphosis from "frigid little girl" to ballet queen—complete with the subsuming of a dark twin—is accompanied by madness and molting. So it's a literalization of Swan Lake, yeah. But previous stagings didn't include the Black Swan performing hallucinatory cunnilingus on the White Swan. Talk about stripping down.

Aronofsky, himself a former Harvard film student, has put us through this test before. Every one of his previous works torments a hero who sacrifices him- or herself on the altar of an obsession—usually a lust for the spotlight. Portman's travails in Black Swan—which include, but are not limited to, bulimia, erotic repression by an overweening stage mother (Barbara Hershey) and the sudden onset of webbed feet—most obviously recall Ellen Burstyn abusing diet pills in delirious preparation for a game-show appearance in Requiem for a Dream. But that mania is not so different from the mathematician drilling numerical relief into his temple in Pi, Hugh Jackman packing himself in a bubble to seek his dead wife in The Fountain, or Mickey Rourke sending his bum ticker back into the ring in The Wrestler. Aronofsky is a dom of a director, getting his jollies by brutalizing his characters. So it is a natural progression that in Black Swan, he explicitly denies Portman sexual release. It's a movie about a girl who will go crazy if she doesn't come.

You can probably tell that I'm not a big Aronofsky fan. But even I'll grant that Black Swan is a skillful clinic in unpleasantness. Nearly every shot in the picture is spiked with sharp edges; at no point do you feel safe from the possibility of a pirouette ending in impaled or lacerated flesh. Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique film the opening dance number like it's a slasher movie, with the camera stalking Portman across the stage (though this effect gets old by the movie's last 15 minutes, where the long tracking shots through dim hallways start to feel like a ballet-themed basement at Baron Von Goolo's FrightTown). The film also contains one of cinema's greatest scenes of Mom Horror, when Portman tries to unwind with some early-morning self-pleasuring—only to realize, seconds before climax, that her mother is sitting next to her bed.

But monitoring mommy could be a stand-in for the crabbed director, as Black Swan—like so many shock pictures that also seek academic respectability—keeps watch for any unguarded bliss that might sneak in. Portman is an Oscar lock, and her performance is certainly credible, but her character feels entirely predetermined, an offering to the arthouse gods. (Only Mila Kunis, as Portman's understudy and rival, breaks through the movie's shell with a healthy-young-girl naughtiness.) But that's the trap of making a picture where every role is listed in the credits along with its analog in Swan Lake. Cruelty in pop directors is nothing new—Hitchcock abused his actresses, and a nasty streak fuels David Fincher—but Aronofsky delivers pummelings while exhorting us to think on higher things. He's the Absent-Minded Sadist, and Black Swan—with its flayed skin and ominous doppelgängers—is Fight Club with feathers. Unfortunately for Portman, she met Darren Aronofsky at a very typical time in his life.