Animation meets live action dance in a modern retelling of Coppélia

Cambridge Film Festival
November 24, 2021

Jeff Tudor, Steven De Beul and Ben Tesseur’s Coppélia pioneers new territory. This up-to-date version of the well-loved ballet sees dancers and a slick corps of female robots sharing the big screen. Inspired by Ted Brandsen’s witty 2008 production for Dutch National Ballet, it plays on Franz’s infatuation with the perfect beauty of Coppélia, and the entrepreneurial guile of Dr Coppélius now a wizard of body makeovers and dispenser of dreams.

The production is uneven but there are outstanding performances. Michaela DePrince plays Swan, with infectious positivity and a soaring turbo-boosted grand jeté. She is appealingly ordinary, munching toast with Ma in the morning before dancing up the road to open her juice bar where her friends congregate. Franz (Daniel Camargo) has boy-next-door appeal but little of the traditional roving eye making the relationship more sentimental than sparky.

On the big screen, supporting roles move into the limelight. Darcey Bussell, a personality that the cameras warmly embrace, is delicious as the Lady Mayor. Dutch ballerina, Igone de Jongh, is a very glamorous ballet teacher. And it is worth the price of the ticket, for the precious few minutes when Irek Mukhamedov graces the screen as the jovial village baker. There is a moment for the history books when he partners, ever so briefly, his daughter Sasha, (former Dutch National principal) who is one of Swan’s friends.

Vito Mazzeo as the doctor is the most fully developed character. He can dance up a storm while his film star good looks and touch of ironic charm make him the baddie you’d love to reform. He arrives in a black limo with plans to beautify the locals and steal the heart of a young man to awaken his bouffant blonde doll, Coppélia, his prototype beauty.

The fun starts as the villagers get their initiation in Dr Coppélius’ high-tech salon, an edifice worthy of a James Bond villain. They depart addicted to mirror gazing and striking poses like vogueing was back in fashion. Ballet dancers, so used to playing royalty, have this down to a tee! Mukhamedov preens like a peacock and Bussell has the wide-eyed charm of a young Aurora. Coppélius’ staff, beauticians, receptionists, cleaners, are the perfect ballet corps. Creations of Belgian animation specialists Steven De Beul and Ben Tesseur, they are perfectly matched with not a pointe out of line.

Swan (Michaela DePrince) and Franz (Daniel Camargo) at the Ice-cream Parlour

Coppélia, eyelashes fluttering and armed with a lethal spray of mauve mist, kidnaps Franz and the intrepid Swan rushes to his rescue. Here the film-makers were in their element as doors open and close in rapid succession, dials light up, and lights flash. A cunning invention of tubes and gauges is draining Franz heart into the doll when Swan rescues him, in the nick of time, with a kiss! Friends rush in to rescue the pair in a thrilling escape but there is little doubt who will win.

The unmasking of Dr Coppélius, the second act in the traditional ballet, is the highpoint of the film as, despite the talents of some of Europe’s top dancers, the street scenes of young friends and lovers were uncomfortably sentimental falling uneasily between dance and drama and doing justice to neither. The message: artificial perfection – bad, warts-and-all reality – good, is turned on its head when the final duet between Swan and Franz is danced in a fake Disney flower-strewn meadows.

Dr Coppélius (Vito Mazzeo) and Coppélia in his Clinic

The commissioned music by award-winning Maurizio Malagnini stays in the background, never finding the energy to match the dance and Delibes’ lively tunes are sorely missed.

The Covid years have forged a new and stronger relationship between film and dance. This mix of live dancers and AI robots is intriguing and an idea well worth developing. The film, with well-known ballet names, may well catch the attention of balletomanes and equally the imagination of a panto-hungry audience.

Darcey Bussell as the Lady Mayor at the Hairdressers

Directed by: Director: Jeff Tudor, Ben Tesseur, Steven De Beul
Produced by: Submarine Amsterdam, 3 minutes West
Disributed by: Urban Distribution Intl.
Running time: 82 minutes