Nowadays dance and horror seem a pretty natural relationship as even those with a small interest in the genre know about Suspiria (1977), Black Swan (2010) or even Red Shoes (1948) if you want to go old school. The competitive world of dance brings a level of brutality which fits in nicely with several horror themes. The self-sacrifice experienced by the dancers allows for physical and mental break downs...
...Writer and director Ann-Sophie Dutoit enters the world of horror and dance with her newest film, Ballet Blanc. Even the title sets up the viewer to expect a bit of horror related dance as the term refers to a portion of a ballet where the lead ballerina and all the female dancers wear all white to represent ghosts, spirits, or other supernatural creatures. While Dutoit delivers on the unworldly, she lets any connection to ballet fall to the side, which I honestly feel was a missed opportunity. Ballet Blanc definitely falls into the type of movie people will either really enjoy or find the film just missed the mark. Unfortunately, this critic falls into the second category. Now don’t completely dismiss the film because it is not without some redeeming qualities.
The story revolves around a boy named Coco (Colter Carlbom-Mann ) who recently lost his parents in a fire and therefore became abandoned by his ballet troupe. Our first appearance of the boy takes place in a church where the child, dressed in a white tutu and very long hair performs for the parishioners. The boy’s feminine appearance and the voice over spoken by the masculine sounding Mrs. Willis (Shelly Starett) allows for some interesting deviations from expectations in gender roles. Willis watches as Coco dances and she cannot take her eyes off the child and with no explanation, she becomes the guardian of the boy. From here, the inclusion of the ballet troupe storyline seems really unnecessary and I kept waiting for the theme of dance to become more developed, but ballet seemed forgotten for a large portion of the movie. No visual dancing scenes or references to the art aside from when the social worker (Brian Woods) inquired about it and even in these moments ballet became a point of contention. Why not play with the dance theme? Especially considering horror and dance go together so well and offer so many opportunities for grisly and intense moments?
Instead, Dutoit delivers psychological child abuse with a bit of exorcism thrown in for good measure. The newly acquainted child and foster parent immediately create scary and intense interactions as Mrs. Willis conditions Coco to embrace hate. This portion of the movie takes the viewer down a dark path as Mrs. Willis trains the young boy to believe consequences are beneath him and despite Coco’s efforts to hold on to his innocence, his guardian pushes him further and further. Instead of encouraging the boy to find happiness, Mrs. Willis forces Coco to bring all his pain and anger to the surface and then uses these displaced emotions to hurt others. The treatment of Coco and his willingness to obey Mrs. Willis makes for some uncomfortable scenes as we witness mental and emotional trauma through the act of normalizing aggression and vengeance.
Visually Dutoit plays with lightness and darkness and the story jumps back and forth in time as we see the “creation” of Coco under the guidance of Mrs. Willis and what we can only assume are the results of her misguided teachings. At Mrs. Willis’ home, the rooms remain dark with no sign of electric lights and instead the house relies on dozens of candles to illuminate the interior setting. The home remains completely Mrs. Willis’ domain and even though she invited Coco into her home, she makes it clear this is not his home and he is forced to sleep in a dark wooden shed in the backyard. These shadow-filled settings also become interjected with scenes of a completely white, well-lit interrogation room where we see a young boy talking to an unseen adult. While the contrast between the two types of locations adds to the darkness of Mrs. Willis’ home, the exchanges which occur in the white room distract from the building story. I’m not sure if it is the dialogue or the child actor, but the conversation which takes place in the questioning sequences seem forced. The evil child theme plays well within Coco, but when he attempts lengthy speeches some of the effect is lost.
Dutoit has an interesting premise with the idea of conditioning evil (even without adding the horror of dance), but as the movie progresses, the film strays too far from the original concept. If you like evil children, horror based off of psychological trauma, or even dark atmospheric movies, then you will find some merit in Ballet Blanc. However, while the limited cast allows for stellar performances like Shelley Starrett’s depiction of Mrs. Willis to really shine, some poor delivery from Colter Carlbom-Mann’s Coco and some bad pacing choices can greatly take away from the surreal evil the director intended.
Ballet Blanc dances onto DVD/VOD in January, 2020 from Indican Pictures.
By Amylou Ahava