BILL’s BIZARRE BIJOU
William D. Carl
This week’s feature presentation:
ETOILE (aka BALLET, 1989)
Welcome to Bill’s Bizarre Bijou, where you’ll discover the strangest films ever made. If there are alien women with too much eye-shadow and miniskirts, if papier-mâché monsters are involved, if there’s a multitude of drag queens and camp sensibility, if go-go dancers in cages are featured, if your local drive-in insisted this be the last show in their dusk till dawn extravaganza, or if it’s just plain unclassifiable – then I’ve seen it and probably loved it. Now, I’m here to share these little gems with you, so you too can stare in disbelief at your television with your mouth dangling open.
We’re going to get a little artsy fartsy this week, folks, as the bijou plays a nearly unknown film, barely seen anywhere, that has an eventual Oscar winner in its cast and foreign sensibilities, and with ballet featuring heavily in its storyline, particularly SWAN LAKE by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Before you say, “Oh, so BLACK SWAN ‘(2010),” I will correct you and say it is writer/director Peter Del Monte’s (not of canned fruit fame but of LITTLE FLAMES, 1985 and TRAVELING COMPANION, 1996 fame) film ETOILE (1989) starring the luminous Jennifer Connelly (Oscar winner for A BEAUTIFUL MIND, 2001, but well-beloved for her roles in LABYRINTH, 1986, THE ROCKETEER, 1991, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, 2000, and HULK, 2003, amongst many others). It’s arty, but there are glimmers of wondrous horror and fairy tales and giallo at its core, and it makes for a dizzying experience.
A man walks into an opera house, leaning on a cane, staring at the bare stage. As the credits roll, I notice a LOT of Italian names! This seems to give away the giallo feel of the film even before it begins. The man with the cane is Marius Balakin (Laurent Terzieff of THE MILKY WAY, 1969 and BLOOD WEDDING, 1972), a famous dancer/choreographer and the master of the Hungarian Ballet School. He lives above the stage in a wild apartment, filled with old props and costumes, and has a creepy butler who complains, “We could have gone and lived someplace . . . real.” Marius explains, “I’ve never had a fondness for real places.”
Our heroine, Claire Hamilton (Connelly) arrives in Hungary and checks into her hotel, dropping a pink ballet slipper as she does. A young man retrieves it for her, and they meet cute ala Cinderella. His name is Jason, and he is also from New York, and he is played by Gary McCleery of MATEWAN (1987) and HARD CHOICES(1985). He works for his uncle, Zio Joshua (Charles Durning from TOOTSIE, 1982, DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW, 1981, and THE STING, 1973), an antique dealer specializing in clocks, who is going to auctions to gather acquisitions.
Claire, along with fifty other young women, goes to try out for a position at the school/company owned by Marius, but she chickens out and flees downstairs. She finds herself on the immense stage, staring out at the opera house. She removes her coat and begins to dance alone on the stage. Luckily, Marius is hidden in the shadows and is struck by her grace and beauty. He calls out the name, “Natalie,” mistaking her for someone, and she runs away again. Seriously, this gal needs to toughen up if she’s ever going to be on stage!
After an auction, in which a clock is lost to a mysterious Countess in Black, Jason discovers Claire eating ice cream, and they spend the day together wandering Budapest (which is stunning, naturally). They find an empty home, which obviously belonged to someone who was a dancer (there are walls of mirrors with bars) and had a weird obsession with SWAN LAKE. Claire admits that it is every ballerina’s desire to play the white or black swan, and often these two are made up to look exactly like each other.
When she returns to her hotel, Claire find black roses left on her bed with a note that reads, “Welcome back, Natalie.” When she sleeps that evening, she dreams of SWAN LAKE as The Prince kisses her and a beautiful woman in black (Olimpia Carlisi of FELLINI’S CASANOVA, 1976). Later, she accidentally signs the name of Natalie instead of Claire. Other people mistake her for the mysterious Natalie, and she is eventually called to a car, driven to Marius, who takes her to Natalie’s room, which has been left exactly as it was. Soon, Claire believes she is Natalie, spending her days watching swans swimming and not even recognizing Jason when he approaches her. She has taken up residence in the abandoned house of the ballerina obsessed with SWAN LAKE.
Jason continues to stalk her, trying to figure out if this is Claire and she has amnesia or something, if she is someone completely different, or is there a sort of mad fairy tale happening. While Claire/Natalie rehearses SWAN LAKE with Marius, Jason discovers that his theater has been closed for years and there is no scheduled performance of that particular ballet! Then, Jason buys a portrait of Marius from the 19th Century that has the choreographer holding a program for his own SWAN LAKE, with premiere ballerina Natalie Horgarth. After researching a bit, Jason discovers that Natalie ran out on Marius just before the premiere of her SWAN LAKE performance in 1891 and was killed by a passing carriage. Things are getting weird! And they get one hell of a lot more sinister as the ballet premiere approaches!
What is happening to Claire? Is she trapped in some weird time loop with Marius and The Prince and the butler? How is it related to the black and white swan mythology? Why the hell is Charles Durning in this movie?
The plotting here is more than deliberate and downright slow in spots, especially in all the unnecessary scenes featuring Charles Durning and his searches for clocks, which appear to have nothing to do with the real story, other than serving as an allegory for fleeting time. However, it’s not dull, and the gothic trappings and visuals of the film are truly astonishing, and the way it plays with the legend of the white swan and black swan is unique and creepy. There are some truly eerie scenes in this one. But, as slow as it is, why is it so affecting?
Well . . .
Jennifer Connelly is luminous in this film, truly beautiful and acting up a storm, and her dancing isn’t bad at all, although no real ballerina would ever possess a rack like hers! It’s obvious that she would one day be a huge star and a world-reknowned actress. Laurent Terzieff as Marius is also quite good, mysterious and brooding, sexy and alluring. However, Gary McLeery who plays Jason is hopelessly bland and insipid, and looks comically like Martin Short. If he could have smoldered a bit, the romance would have been more believable.
The film, however, looks utterly beautiful, every frame a careful composition. The colors! My God, those colors! Cinematographer Acacio de Almeida (THAT DAY, 1983 and IN THE WHITE CITY, 1983) knows exactly how to film both beautiful outdoor locations and the movements of dancers on stage. He is a huge asset to this deliberately-paced and gorgeous film, and he really creates spooky, Gothic-inspired pictures. The soundtrack is also a huge benefit to the film, and it could be played over and over and I’d never get tired of it. The wistful melodies and variations on Tchaikovsky were composed by Jurgen Knieper, who also wrote the stunning music for classic films like WINGS OF DESIRE (1987), CHRISTINE F (1981), ARABIAN NIGHTS, 1979, and RIVER’S EDGE, 1986).
ETOILE (1989) is a great film that really plays with folklore and Gothic Literature themes, even though it has a few bumps and a bland performance by the male lead. Despite these quibbles, it is one shockingly lovely film to experience, sensual in its visuals and music, and Jennifer Connelly is breath-taking.
I give ETOILE three and a half unwanted antique clocks out of four, especially if you are familiar with the source ballet! I actually believe I like it better than BLACK SWAN (2010), and I loved that film.
© Copyright 2017 by William D. Carl