Friday, March 9, 2018

Past Misdeeds: Étoile (1989)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

American ballerina Claire (Jennifer Connelly) travels to Budapest for an audition for either a role in "Swan Lake" or a place in a ballet academy (as about other things, Étoile is decidedly unclear about it, but it really doesn't matter in the long run). When her time to audition comes, though, Claire has a sudden case of nerves and flees, getting lost in the belly of the theatre the audition takes place in, until she comes to a stage where she, of course, begins to dance.

Claire is witnessed by the ballet troupe's director (Laurent Terzieff), who for some reason that will become clear later on calls her by the name of Nathalie. Which, of course, again drives Claire to flight.

Later, our heroine, in an understandably bad mood about her own behaviour, tries to distract herself by taking a walk through Budapest. She meets fellow American Jason (Gary McCleery) - with whom she had already met-cute before - and proceeds to do some of that earnest falling in love in minutes stuff young people in movies are so fond of; though it has to be said that Jason seems much more smitten with Claire than she is with him, for Claire has after all already found the love of her life in form of dancing, as she explains to him. Not one to be discouraged by that sort of thing, Jason promises to return to the theatre with Claire the next day to try and get her a second chance for her audition.

That very night, though, Claire is so disturbed by a nightmare about characters from "Swan Lake" the audience also already knows as part of the dance troupe she decides to just pack her things and fly back to the USA at once. Before she can escape whatever she's fleeing from, though, Claire's identity (and probably her reality, too)begins to shift. She signs a form with the name "Nathalie Horvath", and follows a call for a person of that name to the airport's information booth, from where she is directed to a car waiting for Nathalie/her. Not surprisingly, the car is driven by the dance troupe's factotum who brings Claire/Nathalie to a rather dilapidated mansion she had already entered once while cavorting with Jason.

From that point on, Claire becomes Nathalie, the prima ballerina of the dance troupe, and spends her time staring at swans in the park, rehearsing for "Swan Lake", and looking pretty zoned out.

On one of her outings to the park, Nathalie is observed by Jason, who had been pretty frustrated by her supposed return to the USA. When he tries to talk to her, Nathalie doesn't recognize him. Jason is understandably confused by the whole affair, and begins obsessing about Claire/Nathalie, follows her, sneaks around, succeeds in a Library Use roll, and eventually stumbles on the peculiar and rather horrible truth about his beloved's coming appearance in "Swan Lake". If Jason can't rescue Claire, a past tragedy will repeat itself.

To get the obvious question out of the way first, yes, there are clear parallels between Italian director Peter Del Monte's Étoile and Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan, but even though both films share certain thematic interests (loss or fluidity of identity of a young woman), and - obviously - "Swan Lake" (a ballet made to explore shifting identities if ever there was one), both directors have very different approaches to their material that can't all be explained by the different eras their films were made in. Where Aronofsky's idea of the irrational is grounded in very traditional psychological models (bringing the dreaded bane of "realism" even into a not at all realistically styled film about somebody losing touch with reality), Del Monte goes a more European way. The Italian is not very interested in realistic psychology, and instead aims for the archetypes found in fairy tales and myths, where symbols and the things symbols are supposed to signify are often one and the same.

It's difficult to ignore the influence Hitchcock - especially Vertigo - seems to have had on Del Monte's movie. Watching the film, I was frequently reminded of a less hysterical twin to Brian De Palma's Hitchcock-influenced (some people would argue ripping off Hitchcock; these people are wrong) phase, an impression that certainly did not decrease through the themes and visual cues these films share. The clear parallels to Hitchcock and De Palma are a bit of a problem for Étoile from time to time, pushing me to comparisons that make it look worse than it deserves. To use an easy example, Gary McCleery sure is no James Stewart (not even a Cliff Robertson).

It would probably have been better to cast the leads five to ten years older, which probably would have made them too old for the fairy tale parallels, but could have improved one of the film's weak spots to no end. Don't misunderstand me, McCleery isn't bad, and young Jennifer Connelly does dreamy, dream-like and beautiful very well indeed, but he is lacking the edge his more obsessive scenes need, and she is not at all convincing in the scenes when she takes on the role of the black swan, both things somewhat more experienced actors – like Connelly herself only a couple of years later - could have sold better.

These problems on the acting side aren't what will make or break Étoile for most viewers though, I think. Basically, the potential audience of Étoile will encounter (or enjoy) the same problems-that-aren't-actually-problems-but-parts-of-the-general-aesthetic many of my favourite European films of the fantastic show: the languid pacing and ambiguous working of space and time that have more to do with the structure of a dream than that of a textbook narrative; the characters that don't pretend to function like real people; the emphasis on mood possibly to the detriment of believability and clearly to the detriment of realism. Of course, all these things belong in a movie with no interest in picturing reality, or being "believable" as a depiction of consensus reality.

Generally, Del Monte seems to have control over his film (not something I'd say about all movies in this style) until we come to the climax, that is, when trouble rears its head. Let's just say that the scene of Jason fighting a giant black swan clearly oversteps the line between the dream-like and symbolic and the painfully ridiculous, and that a dramatic highpoint should probably not be a film's worst scene.

For most of its running time, though, Étoile plays out like a dream, with all the symbolism and all the ambiguity of symbols that implies. I suspect most of the film's viewers will either adore - like me - or hate that dream-like mood dominating it; I don't feel neutrality to be much of an option

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