Color, 1989, 101 mins. 14 secs.
Directed by Peter Del Monte
Starring Jennifer Connelly, Gary McCleery, Laurent Terzieff, Charles Durning
Scorpion Releasing (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Medusa (DVD) (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
The third, final, and most obscure entry in the batch of films made by a young, very pre-Oscar Jennifer Connelly in Italy (following Once Upon a Time in America and Phenomena), Étoile (or "Star," if you're not up on your French) is a tough film to pin down and has remained strangely difficult to see over the years. Only receiving a notable theatrical and home video release at the time in Japan (where Connelly was and remains very popular), the film features a supernatural plot and, thanks to co-writer Franco Ferrini (Phenomena, Opera), often feels like a legitimate Italian horror film. However, it's a bit more difficult to pin down than that as it flirts more with sinister fantasy than anything else, using its tale of an American ballet student at the mercy of dark forces (Suspiria, anyone?) to weave a tale of possession and artistic obsession that isn't quite like anything else.
Upon arriving in Budapest to attend an internationally famous dance school, Claire Hamilton (Connelly) immediately catches the eye of famous dancer and instructor Marius (Terzieff), as well as fellow American student Jason (Baby It's You's McCleery) and his blustery uncle, Joshua (Durning), who seems to spend all of his time at auctions. After botching her big audition, she's stopped from leaving by what appears to be a personality disorder in which she seems to be taken over by a long-dead ballerina named Natalie whose starring role in a performance of Swan Lake was tragically cut short. Jason tries to shake Claire back to reality, but she sinks further into a delirious past where the dead Natalie appears to be destined to reprise her stage role with even more diabolical consequences.
Strange, lyrical, and bound to confound viewers expecting a straightforward genre film, Étoile will definitely appeal most to fans of Connelly, who appears in almost every scene and gets to undergo a striking transformation from an innocent schoolgirl persona to a black-clad queen of the night. The darker elements don't really come to the forefront until the final third of the film when the fateful ballet performance starts to close in, and it's pulled off during the climax nicely by director Peter Del Monte, best known for the delirious art house favorite Invitation au Voyage and the frustrating, shot-on-video curio Julia and Julia with Kathleen Turner. It's a gorgeous film through and through thanks to cinematography by Raoul Ruiz regular Acácio de Almeida, who conjures up some truly striking imagery worthy of classic paintings, and the odd, subdued music score by frequent Wim Wenders composer Jürgen Knieper (which was first released on CD paired up with The Visitor, oddly enough) is a marked departure from what you'd normally find in an Italian genre film around this time. Ultimately the film proved to be too difficult to market to really find much of an audience (and the bland performance by McCleery probably didn't help), but it's worth a look for the curious and definitely a potent sensory experience. As noted above, it's easy to compare this film to those that preceded it, but equally fascinating is how much it foreshadows some later art films, most obviously Lucile Hadzihalilovic's Innocence and especially Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan.
Anyone really determined to see this film likely had to settle with watching the Japanese VHS version (which was in English with subtitles), a fuzzy letterboxed presentation that got the general idea across without fully showing off the film's visual strengths. A subsequent Italian DVD looked much better but had no English-friendly options and suffered from PAL speedup that wrecked the Swan Lake passages. That means the 2017 Scorpion Releasing editions on Blu-ray (sold in the U.S. by Ronin Flix and overseas by Diabolik) and DVD can only be an improvement, and indeed it looks quite gorgeous with a fresh 2K scan offering a nice sense of depth throughout, vibrant colors, and much better detail in those darker scenes lit only by candlelight. As with past transfers there's some obvious telecine wobble baked into the opening and closing credits and some bumpy edits throughout, which appears to be a flaw with the original assembly of the film. The English DTS-HD MA stereo track sounds solid for what amounts to a fairly undemanding mix.
As for extras, a new video interview with Del Monte (18m37s)
explains how this came about after the success of Julia and Julia with a hefty producers' advance motivating him to bring in some unexpected collaborators, even if the film ultimately failed to find much distribution and features a fake black swan effect he still hates. He refers to the film as a "dark fairy tale" (which it is) but refuses to classify it as horror because it doesn't have any blood, a ridiculous argument that some people still seem to make these days. Next up, executive producer Claudio Mancini (9m36s) recalls the location scouting in Budapest and, like Del Monte, reveals his admiration for Connelly and dissatisfaction with the casting of McCleery ("He was crazy, maybe stupid"). The original trailer is included along with bonus ones for Barbarosa, City on Fire, Steaming, and Ten Little Indians.
Reviewed on November 27, 2017