Isabelle Stever’s bold and troubling drama of a reunited mother-son relationship pushes beyond motherly love

Grand Jeté

Source: brave new work

‘Grand Jeté’

Dir: Isabelle Stever. Germany. 2022. 105 mins.

The latest film from German director Isabelle Stever doesn’t so much confront taboos, as dance past them completely. Grand Jeté is a charged portrait of a sexual relationship between an older woman and a young man. But the woman, Nadja (Sarah Nevada Grether), is his mother; the man, Mario (Emil von Schönfels), is the estranged son she handed over to her own mother as a baby in order to pursue her career as a ballerina. Stever’s intellectually rigorous approach takes a dispassionate view of mother-son incest – unusually, neither is punished for their transgression; nor are they overtly judged. Instead, the film coolly examines the motivations behind their love affair and finds, if not a healthy relationship, then a kernel of dysfunctional logic. It’s a bold and troubling film which, one suspects, may present something of a marketing challenge. Distributors on the lookout for boundary-pushing subject matter and polarising, talking point titles will find much of interest here – it has already sold to Altered Innocence in the US, and seems likely to generate further interest on the festival circuit following its premiere in Berlin’s Panorama.

A candidly depicted sexual connection between an absent mother and her son

Grand Jeté, as the title suggests, uses the world of ballet, with its torturous mental and physical demands, as both a backdrop to and, to a certain extent, an explanation for Nadja and Mario’s connection. Nadja has enjoyed considerable success but she is now at the end of her professional career. She tutors young dancers: poised, patrician and without sympathy for frailty or weakness, she demonstrates impeccable technique, then peels her shoes from her raw and bleeding toes. Her doctor has suggested she use a walking stick; elsewhere her body fails her in other ways – there is a livid rash on her neck.

Former dancer Grether, an American based in Berlin, is impressively committed to the kind of role that Isabelle Huppert might have taken on in the past – there are thematic parallels with Christophe Honoré’s Huppert-starring incest melodrama Ma Mere, although tonally this is a more slippery and ambiguous undertaking. Grether’s ballet training and her dancer’s physicality is a key asset; her body works in tandem with a camera which hones in on the muscles of her neck and shoulders, as insistent and piercing as an acupuncture needle. Cinematographer Constantin Campean’s use of tight focus is a supremely effective technique, a window into the mindset of a dancer whose failing body is a savage and unhealthy obsession.

So what prompts this candidly depicted sexual connection between the absent mother and her son? This is not the kind of film which spells things out unequivocally – it takes several scenes before we even learn how Nadja and this doe-eyed man-boy are actually related. But there are hints. At her mother’s birthday celebration, the event which reconnects Nadja with her son, there is a suggestion that the world of ballet consumed Nadja’s youth, dominating every aspect of her life. In Mario, perhaps, she sees an alternative version of herself reflected; a freer, wilder version. Then there’s the attraction, for a woman whose whole life has been built on control and denial, of letting go, of finally saying yes to long repressed urges. The focus is predominantly on Nadja, but relationships are a two way interaction. And it’s to the film’s detriment that Mario’s motives are less easily identified. There is, however, a scene in which he competes in a penis weight endurance competition at a kink club which suggests that he’s unusually open to niche sexual activities.

Production company: brave new work

International sales: Reel Suspects

Producers: Mohammad Farokhmanesh, Frank Geiger, Armin Hofmann

Screenplay: Anna Melikova, based on the novel Fürsorge by Anke Stelling

Cinematography: Constantin Campean

Editing: Paul Gröbel, Jil Lange

Production design: Mirko Rachor

Music: Thomas Mehlhorn, Sigourney Pilz

Main cast: Sarah Nevada Grether, Emil von Schönfels, Susanne Bredehöft, Stefan Rudolf, Maya Kornev, Carl Hegemann, Jule Böwe, Eva Medusa Gühne, Sina Koburg, Lukas Lonski, Anke Stelling