I’ve been thinking about Strictly Ballroom (1992), Baz Luhrman’s first film, since it was on television at Christmas, and have just realised that it reminded me of an essay by Umberto Eco about Casablanca, which he described as being like a party full of archetypes. Archetypal stories are running wild in Strictly Ballroom too, plucked from different genres, but artfully.
There’s the young gun taking on a corrupt establishment; the migrant family making their way suspiciously in a new world; the tyro who needs to be licked into shape for the big event, in – of course – an impossibly short time; the boy in love with the girl on (literally) the wrong side of the tracks; art-and-love is more important than winning; and the archetype which shapes the denouement, ‘that the only thing new in the world is the history you didn’t know’, played out in two versions for dramatic effect.
And of course this is a meta-story as well, of the young director announcing himself to the world as one who is going to dance his own steps, and not be overawed by the weight of Australia’s cinema history. And Luhrman knows – because we’ve all watched a lot of films – that we understand the familiar steps and are able to follow him when he mixes them up a bit.
Two of his choices are distinctive. The first is the subject matter, ballroom dancing, a decade before the BBC stole half the name and most of the underlying idea to renovate its own dancing show. It is, let’s face it, the least Australian of sports, a world away from the blood and thunder of Aussie Rules or the green and gold of the rugby teams, or even the lean power of track cycling. (But write what you know; his mother was a teacher of ballroom dance).
The second is the scale, for Strictly Ballroom is an anti-epic, a small world, perfectly formed. It may seem paradoxical, but stories of small worlds – think of Gregory’s Girl, or Cinema Paradiso, or The Full Monty – are often the most universal.