mandag 29. oktober 2012


Italy, 1989

Directed by Peter Del Monte

Jennifer Connelly, Gary McCleery, Laurent Terzieff, Charles Durning, Donald Hodson, Olimpia Carlisi

To many Jennifer Connelly fans, Dario Argento’s bizarre Italian horror film Phenomena (1984) is probably the strangest item on the esteemed actress’ resume. It is not the most obscure one, however. That honor goes to another Italian film, the strange Etoile.

Connelly plays Claire Hamilton, a young and beautiful ballerina who travels to Budapest in order to try out for a renowned ballet school. At her hotel, Claire by chance encounters a fellow American named Jason Forrest (Gary McCleery) when he picks up a ballet shoe she has dropped. The geeky Jason is in Budapest to assist his eccentric, clock-collecting uncle Joshua (Charles Durning) but he is so enchanted by Claire’s beauty that he quickly forgets about everything else. Claire finds Jason charming and it doesn’t take long for romantic feelings to develop between the two.

A ballet shoe brings Claire and Jason together in true fairytale fashion

Charles Durning is onboard to provide comic relief as the clock-collecting Uncle Joshua

Unfortunately, Claire’s ballet audition doesn’t go too well. While waiting in line, she listens to one of the rejected ballerinas tearfully relating how badly she was treated, and when Claire’s name is called, she freezes. Unable to face the audition room, she flees in panic but loses her way and ends up on the stage in an empty, old theater. Instinctively, Claire starts to dance on the stage – not knowing that the ballet school’s director, Marius Balakin (Laurent Terzieff), is observing her from the darkened audience row. Marius can’t believe what is happening before his eyes. “Natalie”, he blurts out in amazement and drops his cane to the floor. Frightened, Claire balks from the stage and escapes to the sunny streets outside.

The ballet director appears to recognize Claire

Shortly afterwards, strange things start happening. In her hotel room, Claire finds a bouquet of black roses, with a note reading, “Welcome back, Natalie”. Upset by everything that has happened, Claire decides to go back to America but while she is at the airport waiting for her flight, a certain Natalie Horvath is called to the information desk. Overcome by inexplicable impulses, Claire heads to the information desk, where she is picked up by a chauffeur (Donald Hodson). He takes her to the estate of Marius Balakin, where she is assured that everything is “exactly the same as it was then”. Claire is overcome by memories of someone else’s past – quickly losing the sense of her own identity as she starts to take on that of the mysterious Natalie.

Claire begins to assume the personality of the mysterious Natalie

Poor Jason is distraught and worried when Claire doesn’t recognize him and insists her name is Natalie. It turns out there are dark forces at work, and once Jason learns the truth about the people behind the ballet school and who Natalie Horvath really was, he must fight a desperate battle to save his beloved Claire…

The theme of a young woman going to study at a creepy ballet school abroad recalls Dario Argento’s horror classic Suspiria (1977) but other than this plot point, Etoile couldn’t possibly be more different from Argento’s film. In spite of clear horror film elements such as the eerie musical score, the presence of dark, evil forces and the plot point of Claire inexplicably assuming the identity of a woman from the past, Etoile never truly feels like a horror film. But it doesn’t feel like a real drama either. It’s as if the film doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, and it feels both vague and unfocused – not to mention overlong at 100 minutes.

Only occasionally does the film feel like a horror movie

However, the film’s chief flaw is the romance between Claire and Jason, which isn’t credible for one single second. This is mainly due to Gary McCleery, who has neither the looks nor the charisma to be a believable love interest for the gorgeous Jennifer Connelly. Though clearly meant to be sympathetic and geekily charming, the Jason character instead comes across as awkward and slightly creepy right from the introduction scene where Claire drops her ballet shoe – Cinderella style – and Jason picks it up. He returns the shoe to Claire and starts bombarding her with questions: “Are you an American too?”, “Are you a dancer?”, “Are you here to dance?” etc. Claire is clearly in a hurry and wants to leave but he just keeps the questions coming while staring at her in a rather creepy way. And so it continues – with Jason’s infatuation for Claire seeming more like an unhealthy obsession. Played far too intense by McCleery, Jason comes across like classic stalker material, and it defies all possible logic that Claire should end up falling for someone like him. It is very unfortunate that the romance between Jason and Claire fails at both convincing and engaging the viewer because the film relies heavily on their relationship as the main narrative driving force – with Jason’s battle to rescue his beloved taking up much of the running time.

Jason looks and behaves seriously creepy throughout the film

One of the all-time least credible cinematic romances

It is unfortunate that Etoile fails to come together because it does have a few things going for it. Firstly, Jennifer Connelly delivers a very solid performance – coming across as charmingly sweet and angelic in the role of Claire, and later making the switch to darkly seductive as Claire is overtaken by the spirit Natalie.

Jennifer Connelly as the sweet and innocent Claire...

...and as the dark, seductive Natalie

The film also benefits from a quietly effective orchestral score, as well as stunning picturesque locations and lush art direction. It’s definitely a stylish and atmospheric work but in spite of its appealing visuals Etoile is little more than a good-looking package with nothing inside. It is an empty film that is sorely lacking in both substance and drive.

The film undeniably looks gorgeous

The cast is quite small and the focus is so firmly on Connelly and McCleery’s characters that none of the supporting actors are given much chance to shine. Nevertheless, French actor Laurent Terzieff manages to be effectively sinister as the mysterious ballet school director. The presence of Hollywood character actor Charles Durning as Jason’s eccentric uncle is quite a surprise but, unfortunately, Durning’s acting is way over the top and he is sorely in lack of a director who is able to rein him in. His out of the blue meltdown in a phone booth is nothing short of embarrassing but that doesn’t prevent it from being the most enjoyable moment in the film.

Charles Durning’s phone booth meltdown is one of those moments that you just have to see to believe

While undeniably stylish-looking, this dark fairytale is frustratingly vague and uninspired. It feels empty and the story fails to really engage but what well and truly kills the film is the unbelievably annoying Jason character – a problem which is greatly amplified by Gary McCleery’s terrible performance in the role. That said, Etoile is definitely the most obscure film on Jennifer Connelly’s resume and she does deliver a solid performance, so for dedicated Connelly fans it might be worth tracking down. Everyone else can skip it, though.

© 2012 Johan Melle

The cast:

Jennifer Connelly as Claire Hamilton

Gary McCleery as Jason Forrest

Laurent Terzieff as Marius Balakin

Charles Durning as Uncle Joshua

Donald Hodson as Balakin’s chauffeur

Olimpia Carlisi as Ballet madam

Grand Hotel gallery #7: Steve Reeves

This autographed photo of American bodybuilder and movie star Steve Reeves was originally published Grand Hotel issue No. 694 from October 10, 1959. At the time, Reeves was at the top of his career and starred in no less than five films this year.

In the late 1950s the Italian film industry was really starting to blossom and many foreign stars headed to the Cinecittà studios in Rome for work. Several of these were former matinee idols whose Hollywood careers had started to wane, such as Farley Granger, Edmund Purdom, Joseph Cotten and Arthur Kennedy. But others were newcomers who made their names in the new blossoming Italian film industry, and one of the first and most successful of these new stars was Steve Reeves.

Born on January 21, 1926 in Glasgow Montana in the United States, Steve started with bodybuilding as a teenager and would go on to great success - winning the title of Mr. America in 1947, Mr. World in 1948 and finally Mr. Universe in 1950. This success also led to some minor film roles in Hollywood but Steve's breakthrough did not come until he was noticed by Italian director Pietro Francisi, who was impressed by Steve's physique and offered him the title role in the peplum adventure Hercules (1958). The film became a huge worldwide box office hit and inspired a tidal wave of similar Italian muscleman adventures.

Steve Reeves bends steel while an impressed Sylva Koscina looks on in the original Hercules (1958)

The name of Steve Reeves would quickly become more or less synonymous with the character of Hercules, even though Reeves only portrayed Hercules in one more film, the immediate sequel Hercules Unchained (1959). In his other films, Reeves would play similar mythological strongmen such as Goliath or Aeneas, but would also take on different types of characters such as Sandokan. Below is a selection of some of his many memorable roles:

Steve Reeves in Sergio Leone's epic adventure The Last Days of Pompeii (1959)

Steve Reeves is Morgan the Pirate (1960)

Reeves on a flying horse in The Thief of Baghdad (1961)

Sandokan the Great (1963), the first of two movies with Reeves in the role of Emilio Salgari's popular character Sandokan

The decline of the peplum genre in the mid 1960s also meant the end of Steve Reeves' acting career. His swansong was the spaghetti western A Long Ride from Hell (1968), and after years of retirement from film he passed away on May 1, 2000 in Escondido, California, USA at age 74. But Steve Reeves is not forgotten, and he remains the most famous and memorable of all the strongmen from the days of the Italian peplum cinema.

I finish this post with two lovely behind the scenes pictures of Steve published in Grand Hotel alongside his autographed color photo:

Steve Reeves poses with the lovely Sylva Koscina, his co-star in the two Hercules films

Reeves with the beautiful French actress Mylène Demongeot, his co-star in The Giant of Marathon (1959)