Tuesday, January 20, 2009



Étoile

(Italy, 1988, 101 min.)

Starring Jennifer Connelly, Gary McCleery, Charles Durning, Laurent Terzieff, Olimpia Carlisi, Mario Marozzi, Donald Hodson.

Screenplay by Peter Del Monte, Franco Ferrini and Sandro Petraglia, from a story by Del Monte and Petraglia.

Directed by Peter Del Monte.

McCleery is Jason, a young American acting as an aide for his rich, clock-collecting uncle (Durning) as they attend a series of auctions in Europe. (While the film’s title is French, the setting is clearly supposed to be Germanic, although it was actually filmed in Italy. The architects of the European Union would be so…well, probably confused, like the rest of us.) Clocks aren’t really Jason’s idea of fun, but the trip picks up when he meets Claire (Connelly, lovely, as always, though she still hadn’t quite grown into her looks by this point), a ballet student who has come to enroll in a prestigious school, with hopes of someday fulfilling her dream of dancing Swan Lake.

The school appears to be run by a mysterious man, Balakin (Terzieff). When he’s not commiserating with his small crew of oddballs, he spends his time lurking in a theater adjacent to the school, staring forlornly at the stage. At one point, Claire, thrown by a case of butterflies when her name is called for audition, sneaks away and finds the abandoned theater. She steps out on the stage and proceeds to dance her culottes off, much to the astonishment of Balakin, whose spark seems to come back upon seeing her. (And I defy you not to think of Suspiria during these scenes. Especially now that I’ve brought it up.)

Jason and Claire explore the town together and everything seems to be going quite well, until a mysterious bunch of flowers sent to her room but addressed to someone else spooks her enough that she decides to go back home to the US. Jason is bummed and a little perplexed, all the more so when he spies Claire sitting by a pond watching the swans. His delight soon turns to mystification, as she claims not only not to know him but also to be a completely different person than he thinks she is.

The above mention of Suspiria is wholly appropriate, as this often comes off as if director/co-writer Del Monte were seeing what it might be like to make an Argento film minus the violence. (There is a little bit near the end, including a somewhat amusing instance of Durning dismembering a public pay phone.) But the movie also conjures up the same sort of aloofness that Argento often does, which adds to the air of mystery but also makes you wonder what the point of the whole thing is, a feeling reinforced by the movie’s waffling tone as to the exact nature of the forces driving events. It also retains Argento’s penchant for building up to the finale only to pull out something goofy, although in this case the filmmakers did seem to rein things in owing to a realization of their own limitations, and you have to respect that.

An odd, enigmatic story that will likely frustrate most, and since it’s never gotten a video release in this country, only curio and/or Connelly fans (and Durning completists) are likely to go the extra mile to find it on the gray market.


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