#2. Etoile (1989)
Nature of Shame:
Unopened Scorpion Blu-ray purchased because Etoile was Black Swan before Black Swan was Black Swan. And I don’t care who you are — it’s good to see 1989 Jennifer Connelly.
Hooptober Challenge Checklist:
I kicked Hooptober up a notch by watching a horror movie that wasn’t really a horror movie at all, despite the imagery of a black swan beak-stabbing a ballerina on the gorgeous poster art.
Etoile Elevator Pitch
Claire, an American ballerina (Connelly), enrolls in a prestigious Hungarian ballet school. Meanwhile, Jason (Gary McCleery), a young man assisting his uncle (Charles Durning) in a quest for antique clocks, falls in love with the beautiful ballerina. As their relationship blossoms, Claire becomes inexplicably obsessed with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Strange happenings intervene and Jason becomes determined to unravel the mysterious powers behind it all.
‘Etoile’ Means Star
Etoile toiled in obscurity until the release Black Swan — at which point it toiled in near obscurity as a few seen-everythings lauded Peter Del Monte’s film as a clear source of inspiration for Aronofksy’s Black Swan. Certainly thematic connections exist. The experience of playing the lead in Swan Lake causing fractures in personality. The dancers’ connections to the ballet approximating religious zealotry. Aronofsky also incorporated elements of The Red Shoes (1948) and The Fly (1986). It’s not exactly the 1:1 parallel that some have suggested.
Del Monte’s film feels more like a toothless Suspiria (1977) than Black Swan feels like Etoile. If this were an SAT question, the answer would have been Etoile : Suspiria :: Black Swan : The Red Shoe Fly (Don’t Bother Me).
From the opening scene where Claire arrives at the Hungarian ballet school, Etoile invokes Suspiria‘s alienation and importunate old world mysteries. Both stories depict the attempted corruption of the ballerina by apparent supernatural forces. This narrative easily integrates into the obsessive and often torturous world of ballet. That the act of training for ballet takes the form of torture permits the co-mingling of high art and horror — something that Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 Suspiria re-imagining made far more than subtext.
Etoile pumps the breaks as it approaches and dabbles in genre motifs. The story downplays witchcraft and the ghostly presence that invades Claire’s life. Though Del Monte doesn’t play a smoke and mirror game with regard to the explanation for the ballerina’s obsession, he doesn’t at all sensationalize Claire’s descent into “madness.” Argento goes full tilt on the grotesquerie of witches, and Aronofsky mines Natalie Portman’s psychological and physical trauma. Etoile just is and while that makes for a mostly pleasant experience, it’s also forgettable in light of the other far more successful films in this unsettling cinema of ballet.
Final ‘Etoile’ Thoughts
Connelly gives an engaging performance in a film that doesn’t really provide her with the meaty bits that allowed Jessica Harper and Natalie Portman to engage the audience beyond the face-value substance of the part. As Connelly’s Claire becomes consumed by her “upcoming performance,” Gary McCleery becomes a leading stiff. He’s not bad, but he’s an American that looks the part of a B-grade actor who’d star in a lesser Lucio Fulci film. For what it’s worth, he’s worked with Peter Yates and Paul Mazursky, and I’m certain he was also wallpaper in The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Harry & Tonto.
Etoile‘s chockablock full of gothic imagery and Del Monte’s final climax contains some memorable cross-cutting between the Swan Lake production and Jason’s struggle to free Claire’s soul from the tormented production. In the end, however, it’s all a rather bloodless and tepid psychological thriller without much bite and a total waste of the clock-obsessed millionaire played by Charles Durning. In the on-disc interview with director Peter Del Monte, he expresses regret about the swan “special effects.” The production ran out of money, but the demonic swan show must go on. He might not be pleased to hear this, but after Etoile rolls its credits — that swan is the one piece of the film you’ll remember. It’s not a bad film, and in fact I’d suggest Etoile‘s worth a watch just for some visuals alone, but it just fails to establish a consistent and memorable tenor.
Etoile is available on Scorpion Blu-ray and DVD.
2019 @CinemaShame / #Hooptober Progress
- Shocker (1989) // 2. Etoile (1989)
For the last few months I’ve been writing and researching a topic near and dear to my heart. The year of 1989 looms large in my moviegoing history and I wanted to put this year into intense focus in a longer format. I began working on this book called, tentatively, The Summer of 1989: The Last, Greatest Hollywood Summer in March and I’m just getting to the chapters on individual movies. The following post contains a portion of what I’m calling “The Preamble.” The opening chapters that set the 1989 stage, focusing on the state of the industry and discuss some of the films that don’t technically fall under the auspices of “Summer” but certainly inform the movies to come.
If you have comments, I’d love to hear them. I’ve spent enough time in the echo chamber. I just needed to poke my head out for a spell and test the air. Please enjoy this small section (that probably won’t exist in the manuscript in any form quite like this because early drafts!) while I wait for responses from publishers and agents regarding my manuscript prospectus. The fun part!
[after making the pimp named Duke swallow a diamond-encrusted watch]
Duke: I’m dying!
Lieutenant Crowe: No, you’re not… But you are gonna have to stick your head between your legs to tell the time.
Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989)
I’m certainly capable of acknowledging some of the more problematic aspects of older films with regards to their treatment of gender and race. Without getting into a much broader philosophical debate about placing films in their appropriate context, some movies are merely a reflection of contemporaneous pre-evolved attitudes and some movies are just plain gross.
Welcome to Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects — where the population of Asians becomes a scourge on Los Angeles and the only man standing between your daughter and child prostitution is Charles Bronson.
Released on February 3rd, 1989, the ninth and final collaboration between Bronson and director J. Lee Thompson requires a bit more editing to make the 67-year-old Bronson a believable action hero. As part of his character makeup, Bronson’s Lieutenant Crowe is a xenophobic revenge-filled vigilante surrounded by lunatics with even more warped frames of references.
And to showcase exactly how warped this movie’s point of view is, I’d like to highlight one particular scene. Crowe confesses to his captain that he’s off his A-game because some sombitch oriental molested his daughter on a bus. The captain, straight out of the angry-for-no-reason police captain playbook, goes off his rocker. He tells Crowe about how his “nephew Stevie was touched by a priest in choir practice. NOW WHAT THE HELL’S THAT GOT TO DO WITH YOUR WORK?”
Why is that dialogue in your movie? Not even the “It was the 80’s!” defense can make that okay. That wasn’t ever okay! None of it, but then again, the movie never actually ties up that molestation thread because it doesn’t think so much of it either. Like the police captain, Kinjite suggests “Hey, this daily mistreatment of women doesn’t much matter because THERE ARE MINORS BEING KIDNAPPED AND FORCED INTO PROSTITUTION.”
Just to clarify, while we all believe that just because one is totally heinous that doesn’t absolve the relatively lesser, but still abhorrent, sin, right? I’m not insane here.
Bronson’s hot on the trail of a pimp by the name of Duke who runs a child prostitution ring. Now Duke’s not Asian (he’s reliable bad-guy character actor Juan Fernández) and Duke’s crew is mostly black so at least the movie spreads around it’s racism.
The movie’s focus on the growing Asian influence in southern California seems ancillary to the premise of the film. The movie borrows the Japanese term “kinjite” for the title. There’s also that aforementioned secondary narrative about how it’s apparently permissible to molest women on public transportation — specifically in Japan. Due to their culture of shame they won’t speak out. None of this, however, ties directly into Crowe’s vendetta against Duke.
If the kidnapping and ultimate “rescue” of a Japanese girl from Duke’s clutches intends to soften our protagonist, there’s no on-screen evidence to suggest his newfound appreciation of cultural diversity. He’s just satisfied that he’s achieved his goal of putting baddies behind bars.
Kinjite: A Verdict
Though a dud at the box office (for good reason), Kinjite offers viewers a few lasting images in exchange suffering through the gross bits and hackneyed Golan-Globus dialogue.
Charles Bronson waves around a dildo for a brief moment in the opening scene and later makes Duke swallow a massive watch. He accidentally drops a perpetrator off a balcony because he’s wearing fancy loose boots. When he gives Duke some “poetic justice” by gleefully walking the “pretty boy” into prison, Danny Trejo makes an early film appearance as one of the very hardened catcalling inmates excited to welcome their new friend.
Like I said – gross.