Directors – Jeff Tudor, Steven de Beul, Ben Tesseur – 2021 – Netherlands, Germany, Belgium – Cert. U – 82m
People in an idyllic town must thwart the nefarious plans of a mad scientist in this extraordinary amalgam of dance, live action performers and animation – out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, April 1st
This isn’t the first movie to combine live action with animation nor will it be the last and while it has numerous echoes of movies intentional or otherwise, it’s very much its own vision. First and foremost a dance piece but far from mere ‘filmed dance’, it will appeal as much to admirers of the twin arts of cinema and animation as to devotees of dance. Being entirely devoid of verbal language, it’ll attract lovers of silent cinema too. (One can imagine the film shown mute with a live orchestra playing the score.)
The lack of verbal language means that the characters are never named (just like in a ballet where you’d refer to a cast list in an accompanying programme) although tags for a number of them are obvious – several shop owners include a bicycle repair man (Daniel Camargo), a florist, a hairdresser (Jan Kooijman) and a baker of bread and cakes (Irek Mukhamedov) while a dance studio hosts a ballet teacher (Igoné de Jongh) and her child student troupe. The heroine (Michaela DePrince) runs a juice bar kiosk where three young women often meet up in the town’s central public space, while the bike shop owner has three male companions who often visit him in the public space. Other characters include the heroine’s mother (Glynis Terborg) and the mayor (Darcey Busssell).
The town itself is a major character, a car-free cluster of brightly coloured, olde worlde streets, with all manner of shops, converging on the central public space. I won’t use the word ‘square’ because it lacks four straight sides. These locations are animated, although not in the sense of lots of movement going on – the locations are pretty much static apart from the camera moving through them. The shoot has involved a live action cast of dancers on blue and / or green screen, with the animated locations dropped into the image at a later stage.
A mysterious mad scientist (Vito Mazzeo) – a sequence of whom opens the film as he works on a robot woman – drives around in a dark plum car. One night he erects a corporate building adorned with his logo, a C surrounded by a circle like the copyright symbol ©. From the © and the film’s title, it’s pretty obvious that Coppelia is the robot woman he’s created. He also has a dastardly plan for the town, as you might guess from the fact that his steel and glass structure is at brutalist odds with the picturesque, almost Disneyfied town and blocks out much of the sky in from the formerly pleasant street view seen from the heroine’s bedroom window.
Following the opening credits, over ten minutes are spent setting up the idyllic nature of the town where boys and girls dance and pair off in the morning to frolic happily in the park. The live action dancers in this animated setting immediately recall Disney’s Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964).
Once the mad scientist has set up his iconic headquarters and begun persuading the town’s older occupants, including the heroine’s mother, to sign up for his programme which involves converting their supposedly bland live action reflections into more engaging animation, it becomes obvious that not only the golden haired, lurid pink dress-wearing Coppelia but also the scientist’s army of black haired, black-clad, ballet-toed, cloned female assistants are computed animated, a highly effective technique which renders their movements far more mechanical than those of the characters played by live action dancers. (There was a live action Coppelia on the set, but whether she was merely a stand-in to give the other dancers a character to whom to react or actually used as the basis for the computer animation seen on the screen is unclear.)
Curiously for a 2021 movie, the picturesque town loosely echoes those in numerous German expressionist silents such as The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (Robert Weine, 1920), although the effect is arguably much closer to the provincial French town of Disney’s Beauty And The Beast (Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise, 1991). The cinematic figure that towers over the production is the Robot Maria from Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927), although being a bad version of a good character lends that earlier film a complexity this one doesn’t quite possess.
A chunk of the animation, incidentally, was done by MotionWorks in Germany, whose location may be pertinent to all this, while the dancers were rehearsed and filmed by production company 3 Minutes West in the Netherlands. (The other two animation houses involved were Submarine in the Netherlands and Lunanime in Belgium.)
The dance piece itself with music by Maurizio Malagnini is an updated version of the ballet of the same name, which derived from E.T.A. Hoffmann. British film buffs will immediately think of the Tales Of Hoffmann (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1951) and I’m guessing that perhaps the directors did too given that before we meet the heroine we see her red ballet shoes on her bedroom floor, evoking The Red Shoes (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, 1948).
And yet, because this plays out as dance rather than melodrama or thriller, the simple story and the clever manner in which the production is constructed around it proves highly effective. It’s a veritable audio-visual feast that deserves to be widely seen.
Coppelia is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, April 1st.
Coppelia previously played in the Annecy Animation Festival 2021 which took place in both online and hybrid editions in the Screening Events section. The film was not available in the festival’s online version.