Nils Tavernier takes his camera into the hallowed, magnificently baroque confines of the Paris Opera for a loving documentary about its ballet dancers. Unfortunately, a little less love and a lot more cohesiveness would have made Étoiles more of a success. It jumps around with little logic or continuity, presenting backstage bytes of information that never amount to a satisfying complete picture of this particular, anciently demanding mtier. Tavernier catches some enthralling moments, which often inevitably evoke Degas paintings, of impossibly arch and graceful creatures, swanning in tutus. But these are merely moments, nothing else. The intense, viciously competitive schooling, which dancers are subjected to at a tender age, is duly covered, as is the strict, frustrating hierarchy which forever dooms certain ones to the background (as members of the balletic equivalent of the chorus), or understudy to the stars. Such ballets as Swan Lake, La Sylphide, and Maurice Bejart's bombastic drill, Ninth Symphony, are filmed, but fleetingly. The endless footage, of dancers sweating it out in rehearsal halls and expressing various physical and mental pains, might have had a more satisfying payoff if we'd been able to see their pristinely accomplished, finished efforts in more entirety.

Some personalities manage to pierce through, albeit in a cursory, anecdotal manner. Many of the women, barely out of their teens, have that formidable combination of beauty, brains, sensibility and sophistication which could be described as typically French (in the best sense). Principal dancer Wilfried Romili reveals a diagnosed physical decline, which makes his career a desperate race against time. (Indeed, this theme of inevitable physical deterioration and age pops up again and again, with the consensus feeling that by the time a dancer is old enough to bring real emotional maturity to his performance, his body already begins to give out.) Ghislaine Thesmar offers the astute but bitterly hard-won advice that, no matter how sick one becomes of dancing, one should never stop completely--as she did upon retirement, resulting in crippling arthritis. The exquisite veteran prima donna Elisabeth Patel is featured in her July 1999 farewell performance, which momentarily has all the requisite, bittersweet glamour and artistry the rest of the film so strangely lacks.

-David Noh