Bye Bye Blackbird

Bye Bye Blackbird

****

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

If the word ‘circus’ conjures up images of boring Boxing Day afternoons and extremely unfunny clowns, Savary’s remarkable 2005 film, now getting a welcome DVD issue, is a timely reminder that as a physical setting, and a metaphor, it can be pure cinematic gold.

The enclosed yet three-dimensional space is the ideal playground for an imaginative cinematographer; the hermetic, hyper-real world of the troupe is tailor-made for drama; and it remains a symbol both of the desire to escape from mundane reality and the vicarious pleasure of watching death-defying feats that could go wrong at any moment.

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All this, plus its status as an entertainment medium whose centuries-old reign was brought to an end by (among other things) the rise of cinema, has made it prime meat for directors throughout the ages – but not so much recently, which makes Savary’s film even more of a treasure.

It’s a long way from the Hollywood blockbusters of the 1950s like The Greatest Show On Earth or Trapeze, which sought to replicate the thrills and spills of a high-end three-ring spectacular. Here the setting is Europe in the 1920s, where a rundown, weary ensemble is peddling its wares to an increasingly jaded audience. But it’s still magical to Josef (James Thiérrée), a young construction worker who specialises in the most dangerous jobs involved in building the new skyscrapers. He helps out at the circus in his spare time, and when he see Alice (Izabella Miko), the star of the show, performing a dazzlingly skilful and sensual trapeze act, he falls instantly in love and resolves to join up.

The owner and ringmaster is Alice’s father Lord Dempsey (Derek Jacobi), a veteran showman who’s sceptical of Josef’s abilities and fiercely protective of his daughter. But an audition where Josef descends from the height of the big top upside-down convinces him. When the circus moves on, so does Josef.

He soon becomes aware of the troubled pasts and secrets of Dempsey and his performers, largely thanks to the choric role of the ageing clown Robert (Michael Lonsdale, offering yet another masterclass in pan-European philosophical world-weariness). Josef creates an electrifying partnership with Alice on the trapeze, but finds it hard to get close to her haunted, enigmatic character, and finds himself torn between her ethereal beauty and the more earthy sensuality of Nina (Jodhi May), the troupe’s equestrianist.

Matters eventually come to a dramatic head – but this isn’t a film overly concerned with plot. It’s unashamedly arty, poetic and lyrical, in love with the fragile, tawdry beauty of the world it seeks to recreate. There are no location shots, and all the interiors are lit in a moody, sepulchral half-light that recalls the German Expressionists at their height.

The trapeze sequences are stunning, and kudos to Thiérrée and Miko who (to my untrained eye) seem to be doing it all themselves. The premiere of their routine together, where they descend in skin-tight bird costumes, entwining their limbs around each other, is one of the most beautiful and genuinely sexy scenes I’ve seen in cinema for a long time.

The music, by Mercury Rev, perfectly complements the melancholic, otherworldy visuals and the cast are superb. Thiérrée (Charlie Chaplin’s grandson, who made his film debut as Ariel in Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books) is both a striking physical presence and as convincingly gauche, unworldly young man, unable to express himself except through hi s singular talent.

Miko (a long way from Coyote Ugly) is equally amazing in the aerial scenes, and creates a convincing portrait of a troubled, vulnerable young girl, as much a prisoner of her environment as the audiences she delights. It’s easy to see why Josef falls in love with her and why the more worldly Nina has taken her under her wing. May (who, I suspect, never met a quirky, challenging project she didn’t like) is as fantastic as ever. Torn between her infatuation with Josef and her friendship for Alice and nursing her own dark secret, she is in many ways the centre of the story and carries it effortlessly.

As for Derek Jacobi – well, I’d pay money to listen to him recite the phonebook, but Dempsey is the perfect role for him. Eloquent, embittered, manipulative, louche and cruel by turns, but obviously in love with his world even as he sees it dying, Dempsey is in many ways a monster but a very human one. And much of this is down to Jacobi taking a part that could become caricature, and making something very special of it. His spiels to the audience, equal parts Joel Grey in Cabaret and Leonard Sachs from The Good Old Days (ask your parents) are gloriously OTT but undoubtedly intoxicating. And his scenes reminiscing with Lonsdale about their past glories are low-key and touching, two great screen actors at the top of their game.

The fact that Savary could assemble a cast whose CVS include Gladiator, Moonraker and Last Of The Mohicans for what’s essentially a European arthouse film, shows how keen they were to work with a unique talent. Trust me, you’ve never seen a film quite like this. It’s his only full-length feature to date and if this DVD helps to raise his profile and get him behind the camera again, it’s done its job. But don’t buy it just for that; buy it if you believe in cinema that’s unusual, innovative and beautiful.

Reviewed on: 02 Dec 2008
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A construction worker joins a circus troupe and falls in love with a beautiful trapeze artist.
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Director: Robinson Savary

Writer: Robinson Savary, Patrick Faure, Arif Ali Shah

Starring: James Thierree, Izabella Miko, Johdi May, Derek Jacobi, Michael Lonsdale

Year: 2005

Runtime: 96 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: Austria, Luxembourg, Germany, UK

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