Review: Coppelia (2021)

Direction: Steven de Beul, Ben Tesseur & Jeff Tudor | Scenario: Steven de Beul, Ben Tesseur & Jeff Tudor | Cast: Michaela DePrince (Swanhilda), Daniel Camargo (Franz), Vito Mazzeo (Dr. Coppelius), ao | Playing time: 82 minutes | Year: 2021

Dance is a direct, expressive art form. Emotions regularly splash from the movement. A well-choreographed dance can be a visual spectacle, in film form sometimes as exciting, compelling and impressive as a good action film. Why is the ballet film Coppelia isn’t that in the end?

Is that the source material? Coppelia is a modern version of a French ballet from 1870. The original story, based on Der Sandmann by ETA Hoffmann, revolves around Dr. Coppelius, who makes a dancing doll. She is so lifelike that village boy Franz falls in love with her and ignores his beloved Swanhilda. She dresses up as the doll and pretends it has really come to life in order to save it from Coppelius’s deadly hands.

There have been many versions of it since 1870. In 2008, Ted Bransen produced a modern version for the Dutch National Ballet from 2008, in which the toymaker has become a plastic surgeon. This was the inspiration for the new film version, which has become even more of a science fiction fairytale. The fact that this story still inspires artists and has attracted an audience for 150 years suggests that the source is not the problem.

Is it the current form? The mixture of classical ballet and animation is unique and can only be realized through the medium of film. The rapid changes from the town square, where everyone gathers, to the interior of the spaceship landing in the square, are impossible on a stage; the associated corridor system too large.

Yet the animations mainly look like elaborate stage sets. The fact that they are very beautiful is nice, but because there is hardly any tangible interaction between the dancers and the animations, they never become more than colorful backgrounds. Instead of the two art forms coming together nicely and supporting the emotions of the story, they maintain and create distance.

The camera work reinforces this by often literally staying at a distance. It portrays the dance movements well and completely, but not quite the emotions expressed. That detachment prevents you from being completely absorbed in drama and dance. The climax in particular suffers from this.

Or is it simply me? There are definitely dance movies and dance sequences in movies that did a lot for me. Like The Cube Phantom or pina, but they are much more abstract and modern in both dance and film form. The latter also applies to, for example, the great choreography by Busby Berkeley or Farah Khan. But those are part of a more traditional film narrative, with dialogue and more plot. That also applies to the beautiful ballet scenes in The Red Shoes.

But have I ever really enjoyed a full ballet performance, on film or in the theater? Coppelia would probably work better on stage, where you get a little closer to the dance and the dancers. But even then I have always experienced some distance. Even to renowned pieces such as Swan Lake, with the beautiful music of Tchaikovsky.

That I can enjoy the very charming beginning of Coppeliain which Swanhilda and Franz fall for each other, and the brightly colored animation, but lost the connection with drama and dance during the last act, is perhaps as much due to me as to this new film version of Coppelia.

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Review: Coppelia (2021)

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