In Isabelle Stever’s film Grand Jete, Nadja (Sarah Nevada Grether) explains to her young ballet students, “You are in the air for a second. Nothing is behind or in front of you. That’s your grand jeté.”
Stever’s film is essentially an exploration of Nadja’s emotional grand jeté. It is a transitional moment in Nadja’s life where she is suspended in mid-air, momentarily uncertain of where or how she will land.
Grand Jeté is a film about a dancer. Dance informs everything about Nadja’s life. She was a talented and successful ballerina whose performances still play on TV. Early on in the film, we are introduced to Nadja with a shot that only shows us her back. It is not a shot that captures the beauty of a ballerina but rather it is an image that emphasizes the pain and makes her look like a strange deformed creature as she contorts her shoulder blades to address discomfort. And discomfort is key to this film on multiple levels.
Nadja now runs a dance studio where she demands absolute commitment to ballet from her young students. When a girl says she can’t execute a particular move, Nadja pushes down on the girl until she is in the proper position and in tears. As Nadja exerts pressure on the child, she matter-of-factly informs the pupil, “You can’t only if you accept that you can’t.”
That sums up Nadja perfectly. She has never accepted that she can’t do something. She has exercised control over her body to excel as a ballerina, maintaining her slim weight and pushing her body to extremes despite physical pain. And she exercises a similar ruthless control over her life. When she accidentally got pregnant, she simply gave the baby boy to her own mother to raise while Nadja pursued a career in ballet.
But Nadja is at a point where she is no longer in control. Her body is defying her will. Her physical pain demands drugs, her doctor recommends walking with a cane, and her skin breaks out in rashes. This kind of chaos is not something she is accustomed to and this prompts her to act.
At her mother’s birthday party she reconnects with her estranged son Mario (Emil von Schönfels). At first she is not sure what she wants and he is a little baffled by her sudden interest in him. It is at this point that the film takes its controversial turn, a turn that is generating the most attention.
Nadja and Mario share a connection through their bodies. First in terms of how each places importance on their physicality and how it defines them. Nadja through dance and Mario through a kind of sadomasochistic display. Both also see pain as part of the artistic process and a sign of their absolute commitment. Then the two almost casually fall into a sexual relationship that crosses over into the taboo territory of not just older woman and younger man, but incestuous mother and son.
German director Isabelle Stever seems unconcerned with taboo or controversy. She handles the incest with a dispassionate and non-judgmental attitude. It is just something that happens and in some odd way is what they both need. It is that moment in the air, not something that can possibly last or be sustained, but it is necessary to ultimately execute a safe landing for both.
In most other films, one or both characters would likely need to be punished for their transgression. But perhaps the most shocking thing the film suggests is that the incest and what follows is part of a healing process the mother and son must go through. Stever is not saying this is true of all mothers and sons but that it is true of this particular mother and her son. I don’t envy the publicist or marketing firm tasked with trying to sell this film to a moral-minded public.
But Stever renders her film with the same precision and craft that Nadja devotes to her art. Much of the film is shot in tight close ups of bodies rather than faces. Almost an entire scene in Nadja’s dance class is focused on her feet, on the way she walks and stands, and how that reflects her being a ballerina. Her body is her instrument, it defines who she is, what she does. Everything about her body and how she moves announces that she is a ballerina. We see her perform beautifully in class and then watch as her skin peels off with her shoes after she is done. Just taking a bath is another exercise in how much control Nadja still has over her aging and broken body.
The film reminded me – and let me explain – of North Dallas Forty. Both films give us athletes, Nadja’s ballerina in Grand Jeté and Nick Nolte’s football player in North Dallas Forty, who as they get older have to deal with the physical pain of bodies pushed beyond limits. But from there, those films move in radically different directions.
Everything in the film is so precise. When Nadja does a ritual weighing in of all her students, one young girl carefully removes all the hair pins from her tight bun in case they might add a fraction of an ounce to the scales. It is an eye for those kinds of seemingly insignificant details that makes the film rewarding to watch even though it can also be off putting and challenging.
Grand Jeté is a film that is perfectly suited to a festival environment where people are eager to experiment and have their boundaries pushed and challenged. But it is a film that emphasizes layers of discomfort, and ignores or maybe just can’t be bothered with addressing the taboos of a society obsessed with morality. Grand Jeté is definitely worth a watch if only for the commitment Stever and Grether make to the art they are creating.