E80: BALLET (ÉTOILE) – Transcript

Hello videodrones and thanks for tuning in to Channel 83. We are the TV guide for weirdos, the video word made flesh, evangelists of the obscure, and I just have one question for you – [ya like swans?]. It is Monday, April 27th, 2020, and today we’re covering a 1989 film that may or may not actually be a horror movie. We’ll be discussing Étoile, also known as Ballet.

Not a whole lot going on in Channel 83 or horror news this week. Yesterday we recorded a special guest episode that’ll be coming out for you guys next week. It was a lot of fun and I hope you guys enjoy it. Uhhh, in horror news, well… not a lot going on because of the pandemic; there’s not a lot of movie news in general. One film that has been on my radar for a while, ever since a tweet about it got under my skin a few months back, is a movie called Promising Young Woman starring Carey Mulligan. Now, I’m not sure whether or not it’s actually a horror movie, in fact, answering that question is the main reason that I’ve been anticipating its release because I really want to cover that topic for this show. It was slated to be released on April 16th but that date has come and gone without any word of when it will be released, if it’ll be released straight to VOD, etc. Other than that, I can’t say that I have too much else to talk about so let’s just talk about our movie for the week, Ballet, which likewise features a promising young woman.

Étoile, which I’m just going to refer to from here on out so as not to offend our French listeners any further with my terrible pronunciation, comes from San Francisco-born Italian writer/director Peter Del Monte. Del Monte got his start in Italian television before branching out into feature films. His first production of note is 1981’s Piso Pisello (Sweet Pea in English) about a 13-year-old boy named Cristiano who knocks up an older woman and is forced to raise a child as a single father in Milan. This was followed up by the 1982 French production, Invitation au voyage. It won the prize for Best Artistic Contribution at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival and tells the story of a man named Lucien, who, after his twin sister/lover dies, puts his sister’s body in a trunk on top of his car and travels across France. Just two years before Ballet, Del Monte wrote and directed his most commercially successful film up to that point with 1987’s Julia and Julia, a film about dead lovers, lurid affairs, time travel, and loss of sanity. Suffice it to say that Del Monte’s work prior to Ballet almost reads as a parody of the stereotypes that many people have about the cinema of Southern Europe. Much of it can be placed firmly within the French tradition of fantastique, a genre in which supernatural elements intrude an otherwise realist narrative. Fantastique is not outright fantasy nor horror, but it occupies a space somewhere between purely fantastical and purely realistic and often leaves its supernatural aspects completely unexplained to the audience. It’s similar to magic realism, a genre that will be familiar to most westerners only by way of Guillermo Del Toro, but it’s not exactly the same and describing the nuanced difference between the two goes a bit beyond the purview of this cast.

It seems that with Ballet, Del Monte wished to push further into the fantastique genre. In addition to  writer Sandro Petraglia, whom Del Monte had collaborated with previously on Julia and Julia, Del Monte recruited writer Franco Ferrini, best known to horror fans for his writing credits on a slew of Italian horrors including Phenomena, Demons, Demons 2, Opera, La Chiesa, and Trauma. If there’s one group of writers that embody the fantastique axiom of leaving things completely unexplained, it’s gotta be giallo writers of the 70s and 80s because narrative murkiness is a hallmark of Italian genre films of the time.

The cast in Ballet is rather small. We’ve got a young Jennifer Connelly (likely chosen because of her performance in 1986’s Phenomena) playing the part of American ballerina Claire Hamilton. We’ve got legendary actor of stage and screen, Charles Durning, playing the part of Zio Joshua, an art dealer who is assisted by his nephew Jason, played by Gary McCleery who has very few credits to his name – none of them of any significant note. The cast is rounded out by French actor Laurent Terzieff in the part of ballet director Marius Balakin. But, anyways, what is this movie about?

Well, as you can probably guess by the title, it’s about Ballet and as you can probably guess by looking at the poster, it has something to do with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. The movie begins with Connelly’s Claire Hamilton arriving in Budapest, Hungary from New York City. She’s come to Europe to audition for a Hungarian ballet company but, wouldn’t you know it, the first person she meets is fellow New Yorker Jason, whom she bumps into in the lobby of the hotel she’s checked into. Claire goes to a ballet tryout but chickens out after she sees a fellow ballerina crying after a failed tryout. Claire wanders through the building and finds a theater that appears to be abandoned. She lets out her frustrations by giving an impromptu performance to what she thought was an empty auditorium. Unbeknownst to Claire, Marius Balakin, the director of the ballet she was auditioning for is sitting in a theater seat observing the whole thing. He calls out to her, using the name Natalie. Claire is startled and runs away. Claire heads back to the hotel where she again bumps into Jason and the two decide to tour the city together. They come upon an abandoned mansion in a park. It’s locked up but Claire instinctively knows where to find the key. After some investigation, they find that the mansion once belonged to a ballerina who loved Swan Lake. Claire and Jason begin to strike up a romance but not long after, Claire begins to experience strange things. People keep calling her Natalie Horvath and it seems as though she is being compelled by some supernatural force. She abruptly checks out of the hotel and Jason believes that she’s gone back to America. Color him surprised when a few weeks later he sees Claire sitting on a bench outside the ballerina mansion. Jason approaches Claire but she does not seem to recognize him. She identifies herself as Natalie Horvath and rebuffs Jason’s advances and basically tells him to fuck off. Jason, in an attempt to get to the bottom of Claire’s sudden change in personality, begins to follow her around Budapest. He follows her one night to an abandoned theater and witnesses her performing rehearsals for Swan Lake under the direction of Marius Balakin. It’s all a bit perplexing to Jason since this theater has not given a performance in years and, the more Jason investigates, the more confusing things become as it becomes apparent that Marius Balakin may be centuries old and that Claire’s upcoming performance of Swan Lake may in fact be an occult ritual to appease an ancient animal god.

A lot of this probably sounds familiar to some of you and I’d be remiss not to point out that a ballerina going through an identity crisis in preparation for an upcoming performance of Swan Lake is the exact plot of Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film, Black Swan. But Ballet isn’t the only film that Black Swan bears a resemblance to. Much has been made about the parallels between Black Swan and Satoshi Kon’s 1997 anime feature, Perfect Blue. There are many that go so far as to say that Black Swan is a shot-for-shot remake and that Black Swan is a complete ripoff of Perfect Blue. That is more than a bit hyperbolic in my opinion but it is impossible to ignore the similarities between the two, especially if you know that Aronofsky purchased the rights to Perfect Blue so that he could replicate a shot from that film in his 2000 film Requiem for a Dream and at one point was even in talks with Satoshi Kon to do a live-action American remake of Perfect Blue. So yes, there are similarities between Black Swan and Perfect Blue and much has been made of it online. Much less has been made of the similarities between Ballet and Black Swan, which are so incredibly similar in some of the plot beats that it’s hard to imagine Aronofsky didn’t take inspiration from Ballet when creating Black Swan. Likely the reason that fewer people have noticed the resemblance between Ballet and Black Swan is that far fewer people have seen Ballet than have seen Perfect Blue. Ballet has just 451 ratings on IMDB compared to Perfect Blue‘s 50,000+ ratings on the same site. This probably has to do with the fact that Ballet did not receive a theatrical release in the US and, in fact, was completely unavailable in the US until a 2017 blu-ray release from Scorpion Releasing. Prior to that the only way to see Ballet in English would have been on a Japanese VHS release, a rather esoteric means of viewing a film that most Americans wouldn’t have even known about in the first place. But it’s likely that an American director who was buying up the rights to a Japanese film that, at the time, would have been pretty obscure to westerners, could have stumbled across a Japanese videotape or two. I’m not saying that Black Swan is a ripoff of Ballet but you also wouldn’t be able to convince me that Aronofsky didn’t pull from this movie. In short, I see Black Swan as neither wholly taken from Perfect Blue nor Ballet; I see it as a bricolage of those two films with plenty of Aronofsky’s own ideas in there to create a distinct piece of cinema. Anyways, that was a really long tangent to go off on but I just feel like I couldn’t gloss over that. So, back to Ballet.

The plot to this film is rather thin – ballerina loses identity, boy chases ballerina, possible nefarious forces at play. That’s about it. Ballet clocks in at 101 minutes, and you’d hope for a bit more than what we’re given. In lieu of plot, Del Monte attempts to build a sort of listless yet dreadful atmosphere in Ballet which, for the most part, he pulls off. Ballet is methodical and deliberately paced. For a movie of its length, there is surprisingly little dialogue in the film, save for the scenes concerning Charles Durning’s character who sticks out as the only part of this film approaching anything near energetic. Ballet isn’t at all sensationalistic but that isn’t to say that it’s boring either.

Perhaps Ballet‘s saving grace is its aesthetic. Set in Hungary (but in actuality filmed in Italy), Ballet is a sampling of but a few of the beautiful baroque old buildings that Rome has to offer. Stunning locales combined with the able guidance of Portuguese cinematographer Acácio de Almeida and some gorgeous chiaroscuro lighting makes for a movie that is visually very pleasing if not a bit light on story. In a way, this makes watching Ballet a bit like watching an actual ballet. Whether or not this was intentional, who’s to say, but I think it mostly worked.

There are, however, a few things about this movie that don’t work. After Claire becomes Natalie, Gary McCleery’s character Jason becomes the main character of the film and I’m sad to say that he just wasn’t up to the task of carrying a film. Jennifer Connelly is both visually alluring and an excellent actress, Gary McCleary always seems to be making a weird face and gives some absolutely overwrought line delivery any time he needs to convey any sort of emotion other than just being alive.

Admittedly, the dialogue in Ballet is a bit poor but Charles Durning and Jennifer Connelly were able to overcome the shortcomings of the script to deliver performances that were – even at their lowest points in the film – at least serviceable. I can’t really say the same for Gary McCleary. I never really cared about Jason, what he was doing, or what would happen to him. Because of this, the fantastique dread that Del Monte was trying to achieve in Ballet is only partially successful. It’s an uphill battle trying to build foreboding and tension around a character the audience doesn’t care about. I’m hesitant to put the blame squarely on McCleary because, as I said, the script didn’t give him much to work with but I’d say that he probably should bears the brunt of criticism for Ballet‘s dramatic shortcomings.

The most enjoyable part of Ballet is the last 20 minutes. Again, mirroring an actual ballet performance, the film ends with a cathartic crescendo. The cross-cuts between Balakin’s new take on Swan Lake with Claire as the prima ballerina and Jason’s battle against an evil force to save Claire’s soul was quite entertaining, especially because the heretofore unreferenced villain that shows up at the end of the film was just flat-out fucking bizarre. In Del Monte’s commentary on the blu-ray, he says that he was unhappy with this part of the film. For me, it is probably the part about Ballet that I will remember most. It’s at the same time creepy, jarring, and comical, so you know I’m all about it.

I said at the top of this episode that Ballet may or may not be a horror movie, and of that I’m still not sure. IMDB has it listed as a fantasy/thriller and that sounds about right, but what is the difference really between a fantasy/thriller and a PG-rated horror movie, especially when you consider that Ballet contains many of the same tropes that you’d see in a horror movie? Whether or not it is a horror movie, who’s to say and I don’t feel like splitting hairs on this topic, at least not today.

Would I recommend you watch Étoile/Ballet? I think so. I wasn’t in love with this movie but there was enough for me to enjoy in this film that by the time the credits began rolling I felt satisfied with my decision to randomly watch a movie I knew nothing about based solely on the excellent poster art. More often than not, that turns out to be a bad decision. If you like meandering, romantic films with great aesthetics and just a touch of fantasy, dread, and the occult, look no further, Ballet is the perfect movie for you in that case and I recommend it. If not, well, probably just skip this one unless you want to form your own opinion on the Étoile / Perfect Blue / Black Swan connection.

Ballet is not available for streaming anywhere.

And that wraps things us for us this week on Channel 83. Tune in next week for our special guest episode.

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