Before we ever see a face, closeups of backbones and muscles take over the frame. The body, punished in the pursuit of physical aestheticism, belongs to Nadja (Sarah Grether), a strict ballet teacher. Though her joints ache, she refuses to use a cane. A shot of one of her bleeding toes after a session teaching young girls confirms her masochistic mindset.
From director Isabelle Stever, the provocative, if emotionally inert, German drama “Grand Jeté” — named after a jump in which a ballerina floats midair for an instant — deals with the transgression of the flesh but remains impartial to the actions of its characters, arguing that bodily pleasure and the outcome of said enjoyment don’t abide by the rules of morality.
Stoic to a fault, Nadja lives with a boyfriend whom we only see briefly. One night after visiting her mother, she hangs out with her teenage son Mario (Emil von Schönfels), whose relationship to his own body mirrors hers even though they have never lived together.
Early on, Nadja joins Mario on another of his night-time outings to an underground club where he and other young men partake in a contest of lifting a heavy weight with their flaccid penis in front of an audience. The one who lasts longer will win a cash prize. But instead of showing concern or disgust at the extreme practice, she criticizes his arrogance during the excruciating performance. Nadja recognizes their similarly warped desires.
The incident opens the door to an incestuous relationship that escalates to test her willingness to surrender her body to the boy’s fetishes. Although the sex is never explicitly portrayed, the implication of what we witness will surely provoke discomfort in some viewers. The purpose, it seems, is not to shock with images but to treat the coarse subject with the utter naturalness so that it becomes even more disturbing from our perspective.
While less tragic in its resolution, Stever’s work, based on Anke Stelling’s novel (adapted by Anna Melikova), can most closely be compared to French director Christophe Honoré’s “Ma Mère,” starring the great Isabelle Huppert and a young Louis Garrel in a comparable liaison. Where the two takes on depraved mother-son bonds differ is that Honoré approaches it with an intriguingly passionate tone, while Server opts for a false façade of normalcy.
Both main actors in “Grand Jeté,” Grether and von Schönfels, commit to play this as if were a commonplace romance. A marvelous Grether morphs Nadja’s impenetrable expression in the early scenes into one of unaltered bliss when with Mario, not unlike that of an adolescent in love. Beyond the obviously troubling genetic connection between them, their substantial age gap between them goes deliberately unaddressed. Unfazed by her arrested development, Nadja parties amid people half her age at underground clubs.
Perhaps the believability of the charged intensity in this unsettling romance hinges on the implied fact that since Nadja didn’t raise Mario (he grew up mostly with his grandmother), she doesn’t see him as her own. And yet that often rings insufficient for one to justify the lack of a deeper investigation into their relationship beyond the insertion of foreign objects into Nadja’s genitals. Though evidently estranged, they weren’t strangers who suddenly met and fell for one another. A closer look at the complexity in the evolution of their feelings for one another would enrich the controversial topic with sensible substance.
The story’s neutral stance on what transpires is further exemplified by a passage following Mario for a day — eating lunch alone, pumping gas, going to the gym, unconcerned with the boundaries that have been crossed. The more Stever goes without punishing her protagonists, the more some might lose interest in the ordeal. There’s a certain depraved brilliance in the director’s resolute decision to not indulge in any punitive action.
To say that the camera dances to the characters’ movements wouldn’t serve as an apt description of the visual dialect of “Grand Jeté.” The camera itself is another body constantly interacting, and not solely reacting, to the action in front of it. In one scene, the camera jumps into the pool with the protagonist as if it were a disembodied entity. Other directors should rush to enlist the inspired eye of cinematographer Constantin Campean.
There’s not a single frame in Stever’s film that takes the obvious compositional choice, placing the viewer in a perennial sense of disorientation that matches the film’s perturbing themes. That means shooting a seemingly insignificant moment inside an apartment or a car from an unconventional angle that forces us to recalibrate the way we observe the situation or having the camera gyrate as if commanded by Nadja’s body in movement.
When the consequences of their unnatural affair bloom and the ultimate perversion of the body comes to pass, the director, perhaps following in the novel’s footsteps, decides to conclude the narrative before the fallout of their illicit union reaches them, before anyone questions them. By ending on the possibility of a future between the two, Stever may be taking the most cowardly exit but also the most strangely fascinating one.
“Grand Jeté” opens in U.S. theaters Friday, Sept. 23, and on-demand Oct. 25 via Altered Innocence.