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Our love for certain movies often has as much to do with the circumstances under which we were introduced to them as with the quality of the film itself.  Such is the case for me anyway, particularly with Baz Luhrmann's first feature, Strictly Ballroom.  Not that it's not a good movie, but I like it better than I otherwise might have because of some things that happened in the theater.  The wife and I saw it in Chicago and were, I believe, the only straight couple under seventy in the building.  One of the elderly couples behind us happened to be especially voluble.  Both sported gravelly growls, redolent of cigarettes and whiskey, the woman with an odd lisp.  The preview was for that dreadful Robert Redford/Demi Moore/Woody Harrelson flick, Indecent Proposal, and the wife drawled out:

    "Wobet Wedfud! I'd f*** him fow a miwwion dowwas!"

As if it were she and not he who'd get the money in that unlikely situation.

Then the movie starts rolling and the husband turns to her and says :

    "It's a f***in dancin movie!"

You'd think the title might have been a dead giveaway, eh?

Later, when the leading lady's father, a gypsy, doesn't want her to dance, the husband rumbled :

    "F***in' gypsies..."

As if gypsies were a frequent source of friction in his life.

Suffice it to say, with entertainment like that in back of us, it didn't matter all that much how good was the movie in front of us.  That said, we did like it very much.  It's the wife's favorite and one of mine.

The story is pretty conventional: since childhood Scott Hastings' parents have pointed him towards the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Amateur Championships.  But in direct contravention of the rules and traditions of ballroom dancing (which have as much to do with the teaching of dance to willing customers as with dance itself), Scott has recently developed a dangerous desire to dance his own "crowd-pleasing steps".  When Scott's partner leaves him, he's forced to audition new ones, none of whom are very satisfactory, until, improbably, the homely and awkward Fran, who usually has to dance with another girl, demonstrates that she understands what he's aiming at.  As Scott's mother and teacher try to find a more acceptable alternative, Scott and Fran practice in secret, eventually receiving assistance from Fran's aforementioned father and her loving grandmother, who does a mean rumba herself.

What follows is largely predictable but still endearingly romantic and exciting.  Baz Luhrmann, who had directed a stage version of the story for some ten years before turning it into a movie, brings a pulsing energy (which mixes soundtrack, color, and motion in fascinating ways) and an off-kilter sense of humor to the film that make it quite distinctive.  If you liked Mr. Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge but thought it was a bit over-the-top, you'll like this one much better.

The best aspect of the film though is the way in which Scott, who when we meet him is totally self-absorbed, has to learn that for all his desire to express himself in dance, he must do so together with his partner.  He and Fran must communicate with one another, share themselves, and be able to yield something of the personal in order to be true to their art.  They must respect the conventions of ballroom dance, with its basis in the couple, even as they expand its possibilities and violate the self-serving diktats of the corrupt elders who run the competitions.  So much of modern art and literature celebrates egotistical individualism unfettered by any restraint; it's unusual to find such a compelling story about the requirement of submerging purely selfish concerns in order to achieve higher purposes.

One of the leitmotifs of the film is that "A life lived in fear is a life half-lived".  Much of the atomization of modern life is a function of fear, a fear of being hurt by those we open up to.  Scott begins the film as only half of a couple, unable to share anything, even a dance, with his partner.  He is living only a half-life.  But he becomes wholly human, begins to live a whole life, when he becomes a true partner with Fran.  It's rare enough to see such profound truth portrayed in film, but that it's done here such a joyous and exuberant fashion makes this a remarkable movie.

(Reviewed:21-Apr-02)

Grade: (A+)

Websites:

See also:

    -FILMOGRAPHY : Baz Luhrmann (Imdb.com)
    -INFO : Strictly Ballroom (1992) (Imdb)
    -Bazmark.com
    -PROFILE : Baz Luhrmann : From Strictly Ballroom to Moulin Rouge (Fred Topel, About.com)
    -ARTICLE : Next for Baz Luhrmann, Bringing 'La Boheme' to Broadway : Having found a way to mesh the music of Madonna and Richard Rodgers on screen in "Moulin Rouge," Baz Luhrmann will attempt to bring Puccini to the land of "Hello, Dolly!" (NY Times, 3/14/02)
    Sudden Streak of Red Warms a Cold Garret: Baz Lurhmann's production of Puccini's opera turns out to be an enchanted mixture of self-conscious artistry and emotional richness. (NY Times, 12/09/02)
    Italian Opera With Hollywood Heart Looks Like a Broadway Hit: "La Boheme," the Australian director Baz Luhrmann's hipster take on the Puccini opera, burst out at the box office after opening to strong reviews. (NY Times, 12/09/02)
    -ESSAY : Seducing the Underworld : Christian's story in Moulin Rouge. (Douglas Jones, March/April 2002, Christianity Today)
    -REVIEW : of Strictly Ballroom (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : of Strictly Ballroom (James Berardinelli's ReelViews)
    -REVIEW : of Strictly Ballroom (Janice Pagel, Movie Habit)
    -REVIEW : of Strictly Ballroom (Damian Cannon, Film U Net)
    -REVIEW : of Strictly Ballroom (Christopher Null, FilmCritic.com)
    -REVIEW : of Strictly Ballroom (Desson Howe, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Strictly Ballroom (Rita Kempley, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Strictly Ballroom (Sandi Chaitram, BBC)
    -REVIEW : of Strictly Ballroom (The Text This Week, Movie Concordance)
    -REVIEW : of Strictly Ballroom (John Hartl, Film.com)
    -REVIEW : of Strictly Ballroom (Steve Ramos, City Beat)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : Paul Mercurio (Imdb)
    -Paul Mercurio Online
    -INFO : Moulin Rouge (Imdb)
    -MOVIE SITE : Club Moulin Rouge
    -REVIEW : of Moulin Rouge (Jeffrey Overstreet, Film Forum)
    -REVIEW: of Moulin Rouge (Steven D. Greydanus, Decent Film Guide)

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