Tag Archives: ballet

Suspiria: Possessed Bodies and Deadly Pointe


Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Date: 18 January 2010

Distributor: Nouveaux Pictures

Director: Dario Argento

Writers: Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi

Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Alida Valli, Udo Kier

Italy 1977

98 mins

Any witches’ covens looking for a cover could do worse than a dance academy. Open the doors of your remote labyrinthine pile and waifs of good family will simply flock to be subjected to severe sado-masochistic discipline. As played by Jessica Harper with an unsurpassed 40-year-old-woman-in-the-body-of-a-14-year-old-girl oddness, Suzy Bannion is the natural prey of the sort of humourlessly leering Teutonic dykes and faded beauties made up to a grotesque parody of their former selves who run such establishments. Horrible as it is, Suzy accepts this situation as her lot: maybe this distracts her from the even more horrible truth.

It’s not as if there aren’t enough danger signals right from the off. Indeed, Suspiria almost doesn’t recover from a blistering opening 15 minutes. Horror movies generally take some time to establish a notion of normal life, gradually allowing the supernatural or murderous to infiltrate. Here, it’s all up in about 10 seconds. As the opening credits run, a bland voice-over tells us Suzy is coming to Germany to study dance. The arrival board flashes up, Suzy passes through security, and she is already saucer-eyed. Seconds later, she is soaking in a howling gale as Goblin‘s pulsing, hammer dulcimer-led theme kicks in. After an angsty taxi ride, out of the blackest storm there floats towards us a Gothic pile so ruddy it seems to be engorged. So this is the dance school. To make matters worse, as Suzy tries to get in, a deranged girl runs out. By now Goblin are drumming and howling fit to burst, and we follow the raving girl to a friend’s apartment block. It seems a dubious refuge: the bizarre, oddly-luminous panelling of the lobby itself seems murderous. And in a way it is. Knifed and noosed by an unseen assailant, the girl’s still twitching body plunges through the stained-glass lobby ceiling, stopped short of the floor by the tightening noose. As the camera pans down, we see her friend on the floor, her face bisected by a shard of stained glass.

From this point there has to be a retreat into some sort of everyday, but even then it’s a weird one. Suzy’s classmates – hissing, preening, would-be prima ballerinas – are witchy enough in all conscience. But even the more Chalet School moments are undermined by the weirdness of the sets. So oppressive is the academy’s gory facade, Argento struggles to make it look less scary in daylight. Suzy’s digs are brightly lit, and in black and white, marking a welcome release from the tyranny of saturated colour. But even here the wallpaper wants to coils its tendrils round you. Everywhere else is marked by strange geometric panelling, pulsating with light, as if to merge with the stained glass that crops up from time to time. All this is framed by glistening lacquered boards, panels, and art nouveau arabesques. The whole is frequently heavily filtered, with occasionally paradoxical lighting, as one part of a shot is bathed in warning red, another in bilious green, like the ‘before’ segment of an ad for a hangover cure.

Goblin’s theme music matches and amplifies the infested quality of the visuals uncannily. In fact, it seems almost immanent in the very air of the film, rendering conventional distinctions between diegetic and non-diegetic sound moot. You find yourself wondering how Suzy can’t hear it, it is so evidently the sound of what is there before you visually. Despite the many quite apparent warning signs hinted at above, Suzy’s first serious realisation that all is not well at the academy comes as she encounters the stares of a whiskery hag and malevolently angelic Midwich cuckoo in Fauntleroy garb halfway down a corridor. A blinding flash from a strange pyramid of metal the hag is polishing physically strikes Suzy, leaving a sort of snowy cloud in its wake. As Suzy staggers on to the end of the corridor, she looks like she’s moving through treacle. Insanely loud, Goblin’s music is the thickness of the air she is moving through.

This scene is sandwiched between Suzy’s two forlorn attempts at actually doing some dancing. The dance studio is one of the few areas of modern décor, clean lines and surfaces, normal daylight and air. Yet, even here there is an odd counterpoint to the rest of the academy. What we see are bodies controlled by music, students prancing to a maddeningly jaunty piano waltz. It’s sinister enough in its way, and it proves too much for Suzy: she spends the rest of the film more or less bed-ridden. The nightmarishness of dance is confirmed in a brief respite from the academy when we follow the freshly-sacked répétiteur to a Bavarian beer hall. Here, in one of the most chilling scenes in the film, we witness – horrors – the synchronized thigh-slapping of group Lederhosen dancing. It is perhaps the pianist’s good fortune that he is blind. Were he not, this would be one of the last things he sees as, on his way home, he is mauled and eaten by his guide dog.

Working out the steps is, on the other hand, how Suzy starts to fight back. Here we enter what you might call the Nancy Drew phase of the story as Suzy, along with classmate Sarah, first figures out that the teachers only pretend to leave the school at night, and then works out their mysterious movements by noting the number and direction of their steps. Following the steps leads Suzy to freedom, and poor Sarah to a tangle with razor wire. But never mind the story: sit back and let the pullulating sound and vision crawl all over you.

Stephen Thomson

Buy Suspiria (Blu-ray) [DVD] [1976] from Amazon

Buy Suspiria [DVD] [1976] from Amazon

audio Listen to the podcast of the Dario Argento interview + Goblin Q&A led by Alex Fitch at the Supersonic music festival in Birmingham.

Watch the trailer for Suspiria:

The Red Shoes: No Art without Sacrifice

The Red Shoes

Format: Cinema

Date: 11-30 December 2010

Venue: BFI Southbank

Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Writers: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Based on the fairy tale by: Hans Christian Andersen

Cast: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Robert Helpmann, Léonide Massine, Ludmilla Tchérina

UK 1948

135 mins

In 1948 when The Red Shoes, Powell and Pressburger’s lush, hallucinatory Technicolor fable of dance’s inexorable power over the dancer, was released, ballet was still on the lower rung of high culture in the UK, its practitioners badly paid, its status as art still questioned by many, and it was lagging behind its European counterparts in resources and respect, if not in talent and drive. The hugely successful film, along with the emergence of stars such as Margot Fonteyn, would help put British ballet on the cultural map; years later, it is still The Red Shoes that seems to communicate the inherently magical, fantastical and otherworldly qualities of ballet to film fans who would otherwise not be interested in tutus, pointe-work and dying swans.

But while The Red Shoes, with its fantasy sequences and Andersen fairy-tale inspiration, is cited as illustrative of the darker powers of dance – of its capacity to beguile and obsess and break the hardiest spirit – much of the film also focuses on the sheer hard work and make-do camaraderie of daily life in a mid-20th century touring ballet company, the nuts and bolts of preparing a work for the stage and the personal dynamics that go with it. This magical multiplicity will always be for me the film’s greatest achievement. The Red Shoes is a film about making ballet that not only contains an entire ballet, but that has about it the very quality of ballet itself – its romantic absolutes, its melodrama, its broad strokes. It is a dreamlike and stylised fable about ambition and sacrifice that simultaneously contains some deeply felt moments of empathy and understanding of injustice, selfishness, disappointment, and dishonesty. It is a strange Chinese Box of a film that required real dancers Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Ludmilla Tcherina and Leonide Massine to play out the story of their art form’s impermanence and cruelty, their questionable acting layered with the gorgeous veracity of their dancing.

Watching the new, restored version is a sumptuous and intoxicating experience, the film’s hues almost dangerously high-contrast, and the cinematography’s exaggerated qualities highlighted more than before. While it was hard to remember to switch from fan to critic in the warm darkness of the BFI cinema (and I am a Red Shoes fan, a proper, tearful, spellbound type of fan), my recollection of this viewing is that the heightened detail brought about by the new print had an interestingly alienating effect, bringing to the fore perhaps a warning about trusting too much to formal beauty, forgetting, as in Joanna Newsom’s song ‘En Gallop’, ‘truth that lacks lyricism’. Or, more bluntly: this is theatre, believe in it too hard and there will be nothing but emptiness left when the curtain lowers, especially for a woman, whose abandonment of the home is bound to bring hardship (‘Life passes by… love passes by,’ as Anton Walbrook’s Lermontov says when describing the ballet’s synopsis to composer Julian (Marius Goring).

I have never really liked the interpretation of The Red Shoes as merely cautionary tale, though, for not only does it downplay the film’s non-naturalistic, allegorical style, it also propagates the binary and simplistic myth of the creative life as one of domestic or emotional sacrifice, when the truth is more complex and personal than that interpretation – which has acted as a get-out clause for many a relationship as well as stymied careers through guilt and blame – allows. At the same time, this message runs through The Red Shoes and cannot be ignored, whatever we think of it, and the themes of sacrifice and fulfilment, while universal, are perhaps heightened by the physical and mental intensity of a practice such as dance. If there is a darker side to ballet as portrayed in The Red Shoes, it might well be in its more ‘real’ elements, rather than in any supernatural or magical force: in the tension and constant competition between artists, in the physical extremes of a dancer’s life and in the actual stories, often of young, vulnerable, talented people, from which Powell and Pressburger might have drawn their source material.

It was not necessarily easy to come by such source material, however, for if ballet was a questionable art form, film was decidedly seen as low-brow. As The Red Shoes has passed into cinema legend, feted by Scorcese (who helped raise the funds for the film’s restoration), De Palma and many others, and film as a medium has attained an artistic status possibly unimaginable to critics of the 1940s, it’s amusing to read about Moira Shearer’s initial reluctance to take part in the project at all. According to her account in Meredith Daneman’s biography of fellow ballerina Margot Fonteyn, Shearer, then a very promising 21-year-old dancer, felt that a film role was nothing short of artistic compromise – and possible career suicide. ‘Wretched man – he was always hanging around the theatre,’ she said of Michael Powell. ‘I didn’t really want to do it.’ Shearer was eventually persuaded into the role by Royal Ballet founder and British ballet visionary Dame Ninette de Valois, who, while reportedly hating the film, recognised its potential in bringing her young artists (Helpmann was also in the company) and ballet in general to a wider audience, in particular an American one. It is perhaps noteworthy that, while The Red Shoes is often read from a gender studies perspective as the story of a woman, Shearer’s character Vicky, symbolically torn between the wills of two men, in reality it is a woman, de Valois, who seems to have dictated to and manipulated dancers such as Shearer and Fonteyn with the ruthlessness characterised by the impresario Lermontov in the film. With the exception of Marie Rambert appearing very briefly in the Mercury Theatre scene, the presence of powerful women in British ballet of the period is rather lacking in The Red Shoes, and Shearer’s resourcefulness and resilience as an artist and personality are of less dramatic interest to Powell than the tragic heroine that Vicky becomes.

But for every Shearer – who, incidentally, did seem to ‘have it all’, with a flawless dancing career followed by happy domesticity – there would have been many others whose lives as dancers took darker, unhappier turns, with careers brought to an abrupt end by injury or poverty, and the spectre of age and obsolescence always waiting, with creaking joints, in the wings. And the compulsion to dance at the cost of all else, forever, mythologised in the Ballet of the Red Shoes, brings to mind Margot Fonteyn, whose adulation and success masked a troubled, anguished personal life, and whose joy in dancing seemed often to be tinged with rivalries, anxiety, loneliness and, as she carried on dancing into late middle age, physical pain and weakness. Daneman makes the comparison between the two, often competing, dancers in a perhaps simplistic way, but in doing so makes quite a case for the Red Shoes myth – even if, as a dancer and dance critic rather than a film one, she’s compelled to describe the film’s story as ‘corny’.

The Red Shoes was presented in a new digital print at the BFI Southbank, London, on 11-30 December 2009.

From a dance practitioner’s view, of course, the narrative of The Red Shoes is overplayed, histrionic, unrealistic; even for admirers of Powell and Pressburger’s aesthetic it can seem quaint, a stylistic exercise lacking in emotional resonance. But to isolate any one element of The Red Shoes is to miss its unique ability to convey a kind of total effect similar to that brought about by dream, or music, or memory. The power of dance lies in its capacity to create this effect, through the evocative movement of a human frame, bones and muscles in tune with melody and harmony, discipline honed to invisibility so all that we see and hear is a porcelain-skinned young woman opening the door onto a painted street scene and – at one with the tentative oboe line of Brian Easdale’s score – fluidly gliding into being. It is a fleeting effect, and one we chase after, in dreams, in love, as spectators of art, and (for some of us) as artists; The Red Shoes, in a way, lyrically documents this pursuit, celebrates the poignant, youthful fervour of those who pursue. Is it dark, though, or dangerous? Despite the outcome of The Red Shoes, I like to think that Powell and Pressburger do not ever really make that judgement for us.

Frances Morgan

Vampire Ballet: Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary

Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary

Format: DVD

Release date: 26 April 2004

Distributor: Palisades Tartan

Director: Guy Maddin

Writer: Mark Godden

Based on the novel by: Bram Stoker

Cast: Wei-Qiang Zhang, Tara Birtwhistle, David Moroni, Cindy Marie Small, Johnny Wright

Canada 20028

73 mins

Guy Maddin’s film of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s production of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a work aimed at both fans of the Canadian director and cinephiles familiar with the subject matter: although the film starts with text introducing each character, it may be somewhat confusing for anyone who does not know the story well. The film skips the novel’s prologue, which describes how Jonathan Harker travels to Transylvania to sell the Count a house in Britain (the film presents this in flashback later), and starts with the arrival of Dracula by boat to England, juxtaposed with Lucy Westenra deliberating over her suitors and an incarcerated lunatic’s orgasmic fervour over his dark master’s proximity. Maddin belabours the sexual desires of everyone involved – Lucy’s suitors for their potential bride to be, her own lustful longings, Renfield’s pining for his master – by repeating the subtitle: ‘Master I hear you coming. Coming! Coming!’ in increasingly large type. Renfield’s blatant desires are paralleled by Lucy’s polygamist yearnings: ‘Why can’t they let a woman marry three men?’ Lucy may possibly be a virgin bride, but it’s clear she’s a swinger in waiting.

Maddin’s usual skewed sense of characters’ sexuality is contrasted with an intriguing set design almost veering towards steampunk: Lucy’s mother, who in a sense is also undead, is kept alive by a machine – a hyperbaric chamber into which maids must constantly pump air. Maddin’s film refers to the future in waiting, echoing Francis Ford Coppola’s version of the story, which focuses on the dawn of a futuristic century heralded by new technology, while also adding references to fears of the mass movement of immigrants. Mrs Westenra’s chamber also reminds us of the glass coffin from a dream sequence in Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr; Maddin is aware of the history of the vampire, both on film and in literature. Dracula as a metaphor for demonic invasion from abroad was portrayed most explicitly in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, and here it mainly serves to elicit laughter from the audience in the hyperbolic prologue that opens the film.

Just like Ford Coppola’s adaptation, Maddin’s version makes the themes of the novel completely explicit – for example Lucy’s death before her return as a vampire is accompanied by demons dancing around her deathbed, indicating that her soul is taken to hell. Each adaptation of Dracula adds something new to the story, from the misogyny of Van Helsing that Coppola and Maddin’s versions bring to the surface to the themes of plague and malign German politics in Herzog’s. In addition, Maddin depicts the Count as some kind of financial predator – when the men raid Dracula’s lair, one coffin is full of ‘Money stolen from England’, while the cutting of his flesh causes gold coins to fall out. Whether this, coupled with the motif of invaders from the East introduced at the start of the film, has something to do with late 20th-century fears of new Asian super-powers or late 19th-century fears of what was referred to as the ‘Yellow Peril’ is not entirely clear.

Innocence and corruption are paramount themes and are revisited in the second half of the film when Harker’s fiancée and part-time nun Mina reads of his exploits with the succubae in Transylvania in his diary, but all is forgiven later as the young lovers are filled with the joys of spring. The original novel is told entirely from diary entries, newspaper clippings and other pieces of reportage, but Jonathan’s diary is the only one read from here, so it is possible to infer that he is the virgin referred to in the film’s title – which would suggest that while erotic, his encounter with Dracula’s vampire brides was chaste. The ambiguity of the title and the possible audience assumption that it refers to a woman while in fact it’s a man, fit with the concern with (male) sexuality that runs throughout Maddin’s filmography. Far from offending or angering Mina, Harker’s exploits serve to inflame her desire, so that we might wonder if she was sent to a nunnery, as Ophelia was told to do, for having more sexual urges than her fiancé could handle! Since the theme of the story is the (Victorian) fear of female desire, it’s no wonder Dracula himself almost seems to cameo in his own film until the final act, as he is simply the catalyst for the transformation of the two female characters into femme fatales.

Colour and composition are particularly meaningful in the film. Maddin makes interesting choices regarding screen-tinting throughout the movie: the screen goes slightly green after Lucy first meets the Count, prefiguring the start of his malign influence; later the arrival of Van Helsing is announced by the screen turning purple (in colour theory the contrasting hue). Just as Dracula is often present off-screen, in this early scene Van Helsing is initially obscured from vision, first by the hat he is holding over his face, and then by Lucy, positioned between him and the camera. This is a film all about presences and absences, literally in terms of who is on screen and whose presence is felt even when they are not seen, and also in the idea of life and death as presence and absence.

The monochromatic cinematography is contrasted with the orange font of the intertitles and blood from a thorn prick on Lucy’s finger. The most horrific moment of the film is the look of smug satisfaction on Van Helsing’s face when he severs Lucy’s head with a spade. The high-contrast cinematography of this scene, which juxtaposes stark black and white with just a slash of claret on Lucy’s dress following her penetration by her suitors’ wooden stakes, reminded me of Frank Miller’s film Sin City, which featured an equally heady brew of sex and violence on screen. Spot colour is continually used to great effect from green gas seeping in through the vents to the lush scarlet lining of Dracula’s cape and Lucy’s lips when discovered undead in her coffin.

The manner in which Maddin films ballet, an art form all about elegant movement traditionally framed in long shot – i.e. from the point of view of a seated audience – varies from complementing the action to acting almost in opposition to it. His hyperkinetic editing style often seems at odds with the languor of ballet, but I assume this is part of the reason for hiring him to film the production – rather than the fact that Maddin’s silent movie style is contemporaneous with the setting of Dracula (Ford Coppola had Mina and Dracula visiting an early cinema in his version). Some of the director’s signature affectations, such as removing frames here and there to make it look like a time-worn silent film, interrupts the fluidity of certain movements and does the staging no favours, but elsewhere the cuts complement the action, as when the discovery of Lucy’s bite marks is intercut with reaction shots and changes in tinting to convey the characters’ shock. Ballet being an art form (generally) without dialogue, Maddin’s silent movie style suits the project perfectly. As well as being terrific dancers, many of the cast are also great actors – Lucy’s partial transformation into a vampire in the middle of a scene is achieved purely through acting; in contrast, her short-lived respite thanks to a blood transfusion is represented through special effects, a blush appearing superimposed on her otherwise monochromatic cheek.

There is one scene in which another theme of the novel, the rituals of Christianity, is beautifully captured through choreography as Van Helsing, Lucy’s suitors and the maids glide around her deathbed with crosses held aloft. Maddin’s sweeping camera moves make the cinematographer another one of the dancers by necessity – one can only imagine the hours of rehearsal needed to keep the camera moving delicately around the set while the actors wheel around it and each other. In such moments, Maddin’s predictably unusual entry in the Dracula cannon proves to be a peculiarly happy marriage between the wordless world of dance and the rich, dark magic of the director’s art.

Alex Fitch

Buy Dracula – Pages From A Virgin’s Diary [2002] [DVD] from Amazon

audio Listen to the podcast: Alex Fitch talks to Guy Maddin about My Winnipeg and about his career so far from Tales of the Gimli Hospital to The Saddest Music in the World.