Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Jennifer Connelly B-Sides: Étoile (1988)

Filmed in Italy less than five years after her astonishing debut in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, 1988’s Étoile remains one of the most little seen films in the career of Jennifer Connelly. Never gaining a United States release and currently only available in Japan, the film remains along with a smattering of television appearances one of the key missing pieces in what has become one of the most remarkable careers in modern cinema.

As directed by Peter Del Monte, who co-scripted it with Italian horror favorite Franco Ferrini, Étoile is an interesting if confused little film that never seems to fully make up its mind as to what it wants to be in its 101 minute running time. Part love story mixed with an odd tale of possession, Étoile isn’t a bad film, but it is a muddled one and one gets the feeling while watching it that it could have been so much more than it finally is.

Connelly stars as a young American dancer named Claire Hamilton who is attempting to make her way into a prestigious Italian Ballet school as the film opens. Claire soon meets and falls in love with a geeky but sweet young man also visiting the town, but their hopes of a solid relationship are damaged when she is inexplicably taken over spiritually by a dead ballerina named Nathalie whose great goal is to perform the ultimate version of Swan Lake.

Forgive me if my plot description of the film is a bit confused, but honestly it is a pretty fair representation of Del Monte’s bizarre script that hops from one head-scratching situation to another. No one would accuse Étoile of being predictable but unfortunately it’s not very cohesive either, so any sort of plot description is futile at best.

California born Del Monte has certainly had an interesting career with Étoile representing neither the best nor the worst of it. The high point to my eyes for the writer-director remains the fascinating Asia Argento vehicle Traveling Companion, a wonderful film that shows Del Monte is a really talented gentleman capable of getting some wonderfully nuanced and touching work out of his actors. Other films in his canon include the 1982 cult film Invitation au Voyage, the utterly bizarre 1987 Kathleen Turner production Julia and Julia, and 2000’s Controvento which featured Del Monte’s sometimes companion Valerie Golino. Étoile represents the mid-point for Del Monte and he shot the film in his mid forties, just after production on Julia and Julia had been completed.

Etoile’s cast is not surprisingly mostly made up of Italian actors, although much loved award winning Charles Durning appears in what has to be considered one of his most bizarre performances. A particular out of the blue break down sequence in a phone booth takes its place as on of the film’s and Durning’s most ill-conceived moments, but otherwise the always durable Durning gives the film a lot of support and watchability.

Technically the film is fine. It has that certain mid eighties sheen on it, thanks to cinematographer Acacio de Almeida, that automatically makes it feel very much of its time. The Set Direction by Oscar winner Bruno Cesari is very well thought and the film is nothing if not stately and handsome. Otherwise the most notable behind the scenes touch comes from frequent Wim Wender’s composer Jurgen Knieper who contributes a solid if not totally memorable score.

The film would probably have all but been lost in time right now were it not for the luminous young Connelly, and Étoile captures her at an interesting point in her career. Having still not developed the astonishing power she now possesses as an actress capable of delivering some of the most honest and intense work in American film, Connelly is still slightly awkward here but charmingly so. Possessing a natural grace and an uncommon beauty, Connelly’s work here feels a bit like an answer of sorts to her work in Argento’s Phenomena a few years before. I suspect screenwriter Ferrini felt the same way as he had indeed written her fan favorite role Jennifer Corvino for Argento, and I am sure some of the connections here between the two films were intentional, although Étoile is nowhere near as fascinating as Phenomena.

Étoile never really comes together but for Jennifer Connelly fans it is more than worth searching out. The film had a belated European release in 1990 but from what I can tell it failed to really catch on anywhere in the world. I suspect some enterprising small company will eventually release it stateside but for right now the Region 2 Japanese disc (that is out of print at this point) is the only game in town, save for grey market copies.

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