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A period drama set in the early years of the 20th century. Josef, a former construction worker who delighted in dancing on girders high above the city, who now sweeps up at the circus. Once the big top's owner spots the young roustabout defying gravity on the trapeze, however, he endeavors to pair Josef with his aerialist daughter Alice in a perilous sky-high pas de deux. Offers a romantic view of big top life, with a moth-eaten angel in his feathered, tattered costume. Written by
If only the script had equalled the performances and the atmosphere
This is a fascinating, brooding, highly creative film which is ultimately unsatisfactory because of weaknesses of script and direction. The story more or less disintegrates into confusion at the end, and I challenge anyone to be able to say what it all means. The film is worth seeing despite these faults because of its spectacular use of the truly brilliant talents of James Thiérrée and the Polish girl Izabella Miko (Miko is a shortened version of her long Polish surname, and she is not Japanese!) Miko is so amazingly beautiful to look at, and moves with such angelic grace as a dancer and acrobat, that she seems supernatural. Indeed, maybe she really is. She has the same special beauty as the young Julie Delpy, whom she resembles closely enough to be her sister. (A good casting idea there!) The most intense performance in this film is given by the ever-amazing Jodhi May, who has spent her entire career jamming all the cameras with the torrential rain of her feelings. I am always so harrowed after seeing a Jodhi May performance (she specializes in the darkened brow and the glowering eyes of a girl who is perpetually in a frenzied state and may commit a crime of passion at any moment, and often does) that I need time to recover every time. But as if Miko and May were not enough, this film has the genius of James Thiérrée on virtuoso display. I first saw him onstage performing circus routines with his parents and sister Aurélia when he was a child, and subsequently I have seen two of his stage productions. No one can question that he is a genius. But then so are his parents, Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée and Victoria Chaplin. It is Victoria Chaplin who, with the exquisitely innocent and inspired genius which is uniquely her own, best preserves the legacy of her father, Charlie Chaplin. And by saying that I by no means intend to denigrate the splendid achievements of her half-brother Sydney Chaplin (see my review of him in CONFESSION, 1955) or her sister Geraldine, who has charmed everyone for decades with her gamine qualities and profound talent. But the 'true genetic Chaplin line' runs directly through Victoria to James, and his resemblance to his grandfather is so unnerving that one has to pinch oneself to remember that it is not Charlie without makeup at all, but the living image of him in the shape of his grandson whom one is watching perform all of his incredible physical feats, and inventing whole worlds of magic such as his mother has also done all her life. This film also has one of the countless fine supporting performances from the French actor who professionally calls himself 'Michael Lonsdale'. (Never having met him, I have absolutely no idea why he adopted that strange name. Most people outside France believe him to be British!) Derek Jacobi plays the owner and manager of a small travelling circus which has once known better times, and Miko is his daughter, while May seems to be his mistress (and semi-adopted sister of Miko) and mother of his illegitimate child. He is by profession a ham actor and emcee, and Jacobi easily plays such a part, since he is one of those actors who needs directing or he lapses into being an actor with the emphasis on the second syllable. No one doubts Jacobi's splendid talents, it's just that he needs controlling, that's all. Here he is partially controlled but it is OK because the part is over the top anyway. This film is a spectacular display of acrobatic 'aerial choreography' created by James Thiérrée for himself and Miko. The young director and co-author of the film is Robinson Savary. He is highly creative and has a taste for evocative and surreal film-making, heavy on mood and atmosphere. But in this early work, he has fallen down in the story department and has also gone for 'suggestive editing' rather than expository editing, sacrificing clarity for hints. He has thus been a victim to the artistic illusion that the power of his vision will make itself clear without the need for explanations. But this does not happen. People do need things explained to them. Not all films can be LE CHIEN ANDALOU, which after all, was a short, let us not forget. Kubrick made this same mistake with 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. When it opened in America, Kubrick's film was 45 minutes longer and made perfect 'story sense', having followed Arthur Clarke's perfectly comprehensible screenplay. (I watched Kubrick make that film over a period of two years and know many of the things which went wrong. Sometimes my friend Andrew Birkin, who worked on it, and I compare notes and reminisce about that strange adventure.) But the morale is clear: directors have to tell a story first, and then 'get creative'. If you try and 'get creative' without telling a story, you make a mess of things. If only Savary had not made that mistake! By rendering his film imperfect, Savary has deprived Thiérrée and Miko of their perfect showcase for their unique talents and abilities. The circus trapeze sequences where they perform together as 'the White Birds' are so amazing that they are like a miracle, and the editing of those sequences is very good. The film could have been a classic, but it isn't. All we can do is salute Savary for trying and watch the film anyway, ignoring its story imperfections and paying attention to the splendid visions which it offers us, as if explanations were really unnecessary in the way that the impressionistic director honestly believed. Savary has also directed a 25 minute short film with James Thiérrée which I recommend, which shows him rehearsing one of his amazing stage shows. But that film is hard to obtain outside of Paris, and French Amazon appears not to sell it.
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