Grand Jeté is a gorgeous film to behold, but its visual design is unfortunately in service of material that’s too one-note and depthless to actually shock.
Director Isabelle Stever’s Grand Jeté is a German familial drama that seeks to provoke, an easy thing to surmise given its portrait of a toxic and incestuous relationship between a mother and son. But those searching for cheap thrills or simple shock value would be wise to look elsewhere, as Stever has fashioned an artful character study that most resembles a mash-up of two very specific Isabelle Huppert vehicles, namely Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher and Christophe Honore’s Ma Mère. Nadja (Sarah Gerther) is a strict and severe ballet teacher who pushes her body to its ultimate limits. Reliant on prescription drugs and refusing to use the cane her punished musculature and articular systems so desperately need, Nadja seems to thrive on the pain she forces herself to endure. A random visit to her mother’s place in a neighboring city introduces the viewer to Mario (Emil von Schonfels), the son Nadja abandoned when he was a baby and whom her mother has cared for since infancy. Now 18, Mario is a strapping young lad who spends his nights clubbing and engaging in various debaucherous activities. It’s quite obvious from their interactions that Nadja hasn’t seen her son in nearly two decades, although the two make up for lost time by almost instantly starting a sexual affair, one that finds Nadja experiencing joy for the first time in years, because, as clearly articulated, she is nothing if not a masochist, a trait shared by her son.
Grand Jeté is not a psychological probing of its characters and their actions so much as an observational study; there are no answers to be found in regards to the why of it all, although Nadja’s fractured relationship with her own mother certainly hints at a few underlying issues. Stever and cinematographer Constantin Campean opt for a visual style that might best be described as ethereal, the handheld camera becoming an omnipresent observer that seemingly floats above and dances around these characters, occasionally stopping as it becomes fixed on some specific detail or action, whether it be the movement of undulating shoulder blades or the carefully manicured bun atop a young dancer’s head. Deep focus is rarely utilized, with an emphasis on one single item in any given shot, often times rendering both the background and foreground as a blurred haze and obscuring more than it enlightens, which is certainly a fitting visual metaphor for the approach taken to this material. Truly, the images captured within Grand Jeté are nothing less than transfixing, and frequently gorgeous to behold.
Unfortunately, the film as a whole is far more one-note, its characters callously narcissistic and grossly unsympathetic. Everyone here is only motivated by their own short-sighted desires, using one another for their own selfish motives, which may ring fairly authentic as a reflection of the modern human condition, but it’s never dramatically compelling here. Stever and screenwriter Anna Melikova also never met a metaphor they couldn’t beat to death, with Mario at one point fucking his mother with the very cane she refuses to use — no need to spell that one out. Gerther and von Schonfels fully commit to their roles, delivering exactly what the material demands, and while there is a certain amount of boldness innate to what they’re asked to do here, they are never summoned to deliver much in the way of depth, making it rather difficult to care about the outcome. Consequently, Grand Jeté lands as a prime example of the kind of film that one can readily admire without ever actually enjoying, the visual design and ravishing cinematography proving intoxicating elements that almost, but not quite, distract from the bland inanity of the taboo material. That all of this is clearly by design doesn’t make it any less frustrating a viewing experience.