EtoileA lame ballet-centered horror flick that was mercifully forgotten until the release of BLACK SWAN, with which it shares quite a few similarities. Now suddenly ÉTOILE is a hot item among cult movie buffs, but for all the wrong reasons.

The Italian ÉTOILE (1988) marked an early starring role for Jennifer Connolly, who was coming off ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA and PHENOMENA. The script for ÉTOILE was written (in part) by frequent Dario Argento collaborator Franco Ferrini, and the film was helmed by Italian-American filmmaker Peter Del Monte, director of the surreal French drama INVITATION AU VOYAGE (1983) and the middling Kathleen Turner vehicle JULIA AND JULIA (1987). Neither film was a big success, and nor was ÉTOILE, even though it was filmed in English and evidently aimed at the American market—where it has never been released in any format.

In late 2010, however, interest in ÉTOILE was revived due to the fact that it’s a ballet-themed horror film that pivots on Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” just as Darren Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN does. Naturally there has been accusations of plagiarism on the part of Aronofsky. While the similarities between the two films are undeniable, I find it difficult to get too up in arms about the possibility of plagiarism, as Aronofsky’s is the superior film by far—it’s intelligent and well made, at the very least, things this one definitely isn’t.

Claire is a young American ballet student who arrives in Hungary to study at a prestigious dance academy. She finds herself quite reticent at first; it would seem she doesn’t have what it takes to become the champion dancer she envisions. But then one day she and Jason, a fellow American acquaintance, break into an abandoned house…and back in her hotel room Claire finds a bouquet of black flowers with a note reading “Welcome Home Natalie.” Freaked out, Claire tries to book a plane back to the US, but when she signs for the ticket the name she scribbles is “Natalie Horvath.” A bit later that name is paged over an airport loudspeaker, to which Claire answers, learning that a car is waiting for her outside. There is indeed a car outside, whose driver informs Claire that “the maestro is expecting you.”

At this point Claire loses her identity completely, turning into Natalie Horvath. Jason discovers this when he attempts to speak with Claire in a park and she rebuffs him, informing him that she’s set to perform in a production of “Swan Lake.” Yet when Jason contacts the theater in question to buy tickets he learns no such show is scheduled.

Jason does some research and discovers that Natalie Horvath was a ballerina who thrived during the 19th Century, and died under mysterious circumstances. Further research reveals that she dabbled in necromancy and made a Satanic pact ensuring that she’d come back one day—which she has, in the body of Claire!

Those hoping for a taste of the operatic horror of BLACK SWAN will be disappointed, as ÉTOILE plays more like a PG-rated Dario Argento potboiler (though without Argento’s visual pizzazz). Parts of the film have an intriguing surrealism, but Peter Del Monte constantly dilutes it with sappy romantic interludes between Claire/Natalie and her dweeby boyfriend Jason (a blah Gary McCleery), and also much lame comedic relief from Jason’s wisecracking uncle (Charles Durning). The two latter characters were evidently on hand to placate American audiences, as for that matter was Jennifer Connelly herself. Unfortunately Ms. Connelly, despite her undeniable beauty and acting chops, isn’t too compelling in the lead role.

There’s a lot of ballet dancing on display, the merits of which I’m in no position to judge (not being much of a ballet enthusiast), but I can say with certainty that the ballet scenes herein are not particularly cinematic. They, and the film overall, could have sorely used the verve and style of BLACK SWAN, in whose shadow ÉTOILE is but a pale substitute.

Vital Statistics

Gruppo Bema/Reteitalia

Director: Peter Del Monte
Producer: Achille Manzotti
Screenplay: Peter Del Monte, Franco Ferrini, Sandro Petraglia
Cinematography: Acacio de Almeida
Editing: Anna Napoli
Cast: Jennifer Connelly, Gary McCleery, Laurent Terzieff, Olimpia Carlisi, Mario Marozzi, Donald Hodson, Charles Durning