Bye Bye Blackbird Review
Robinson Savary’s Bye Bye Blackbird presents a classic Commedia dell’Arte dramatic situation, one ripe for the heightened emotions of love, jealousy and melodrama. In cinematic terms it sits alongside Tod Browning’s Freaks, Fellini’s La Strada and Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel, using the circus as a hothouse to explore intense relationships between artists and performers, viewed as outsiders by normal society, but in their own flawed way seeking acceptance and love. Inevitably, there is usually an underlying element of voyeurism involved in such a situation, a contradiction that sees the tortured artist needing the validation of an audience, yet finding that the exhibitionism of fame and celebrity sits uneasily with them as a private and sensitive person with human needs. Taking full advantage of that contradiction, Bye Bye Blackbird then quite literally soars to the heights of the flying artists on the trapeze, before sinking to the depths of the performer as a caged exhibit, but there’s a feeling that some of the finer detail of human emotions and the complexity of relationships gets lost somewhere in-between.
Those boundaries are defined from the outset, the division being made between the outward glamour of the circus performers and the fate of the labourers, mostly East European immigrants, who set up the tents and take care of menial handyman chores for Dempsey’s Circus. For those construction workers, heights are not so glamorous and any misstep can be fatal. Nonetheless one of them, Josef (James Thiérrée), has lofty ambitions. He has seen an angel floating down from the skies in the form of Alice (Izabella Miko), the beautiful lone trapeze artist and daughter of the owner of the circus, Mr Dempsey (Derek Jacobi), and the young man wants to ascend to those vertiginous heights that come with his love for her. Josef demonstrates his worth on the trapeze and forms a dazzling partnership with Alice, the two of them taking to the air like birds on the wing. Alice however is not interested in Josef romantically. She also has greater ambitions than the false glamour of greasepaint and spotlights, and with many admirers writing to her expressing their admiration, including a Count who is in love with her, how long can Josef hold onto the bird he has caught before she flies the coop?
Bye Bye Blackbird abounds in such imagery and metaphor - “So you want to fly like the others”, the Ringmaster asks Nina, the hot-blooded but earthbound horse rider (Jodhi May’s posh accent failing to indicate her character’s gypsy roots), in love with Josef, a man only with eyes raised to the sky - and none of it is at all subtle. But with this kind of setting it doesn’t need to be. Savary consequently plays it with the overwrought emotion of Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel, not afraid to face up to the theatricality of the circus setting at the turn of the century and play up the dramatic tenor for all its worth. Derek Jacobi also hams it up accordingly as the ostentatious, villainous, ruthless and heartless ringmaster – over-the-top certainly, but bringing a necessary full-blooded quality to the otherwise vacuous emotions based around the theme of loss and unrequited love in the Alice-Josef-Nina love-triangle.
What the film lacks in characterisation, script and dialogue however it makes up for in mood and imagery. Showing Savary’s background as a photographer, the lighting and camera work give the impression of great spectacle but, like the illusion of the performers, in reality the shots are simple and effective, the swirling camera and close framing of the two performers in the roof of the big-top spinning the fantasy that Josef wants to enact with Alice on the earth. For the first half of the film that illusion holds, but as events progress the story slides into dark introspection, turning, not unlike Kafka’s Hunger Artist, into a bleak reflection on the shameless exploitation of the suffering artist as entertainment for the masses. It’s an area that, for all the sleight of hand of the performers and bluster of their ringmaster (or for all the sleight of hand of the actors and the bluster of their director for that matter), has insufficient depth behind it to carry the necessary weight and conviction of this turn of events.
Bye Bye Blackbird is released in the UK by Soda Pictures. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
The transfer is anamorphic, presenting the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It’s a clean print, free from marks and reasonably well toned and coloured, but the transfer doesn’t seem to have been taken from a high definition source. The image is quite soft, the colour range is limited, bleeding over into blue-line edging, and the blacks are rather flat in the darker scenes which make up most of the film. In one scene towards the latter part of the film, the blacks do struggle to hold together and briefly descend into a blur of blue low-level noise haze. This won’t trouble most viewers however and other than some mild grain and a faint flicker of artefacting there’s nothing here that causes any serious concerns. It’s a good enough transfer, but certainly not an exceptional one.
The DVD packaging indicates a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, but there is only a Dolby Digital 2.0 track present here. It’s fine, rather straightforward, relatively clear and has a little bit of oomph to the oompah-pah of the circus instrumentation, but again it doesn’t come across with any impact. The film’s score is by Mercury Rev.
The majority of the film is English language with some brief untranslated dialogues in French and, I presume, Czech. There are consequently no subtitles provided at all and no hard of hearing options.
The only extra features is a brief Teaser (1:02) showing a brief clip of the spinning trapeze act presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic and a Gallery of 10 stills.
The strength of Bye Bye Blackbird’s classic dramatic circus situation of love, jealousy and ambition, the quality of the imagery and the mood that is achieved is enough to make up for the deficiencies in the performances, characterisation and scripting, but it can only sustain the film for so long. By the time the film enters its second half and tries to take on a darker introspective tone, the viewer is likely to find that there’s nothing of much substance there to reflect on. It is however a curious and intriguing film with enough period character, mood and tragic romance to gain a small but fervent cult following. Soda’s DVD release is generally fine but basic, both in its mediocre transfer and the absence of any substantial supplemental features.