The producers of new animated feature Ballerina discuss recreating 1880s Paris.
When you were born in Paris, you sometimes forget that it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world,” sighs screenwriter Laurent Zeitoun. “All you need to do is to stand somewhere for a few minutes, look around and realise you’re living in an open-air museum that people still dream about.”
Zeitoun had to take a second look at the city of his birth thanks to Ballerina, a new animated feature that he has co-written and produced. A combination of Rocky and Billy Elliot, it tells the story of Félicie, a young orphan from Brittany who, in a time when the Eiffel Tower was still being constructed, escapes to the capital to live her dream of becoming a prima ballerina at the Paris Opéra. While the story is a stirring one, it is the lush visuals that stand out, with 1880s Paris beautifully recreated. It is an animated city built on exhaustive research.
“Our art director Florent Masurel ‘lived’ in the Paris of the era: he spent six months on archive research, both visual and graphic,” explains co-producer Yann Zenou. “He examined paintings, engravings, literature; he dissected the social and political context; he studied every street, every profession. His guiding light was the transformations that were going on thanks to Baron Haussmann, who had begun by widening squares and avenues.”
Of all the buildings drawn by animators, none was more important than the majestic Palais Garnier, which housed the Paris Opéra, the magnet drawing Félicie to the city. “We found all the original blueprints in the Opéra archives,” says Zeitoun. “We called on independent architects to recreate the structure of the building, and then make a model; it was a Herculean task.”
The production even employed ballet choreographers to make sure the dance movements were spot-on. For dancer Jérémie Bélingard that meant revisiting his childhood. “I did a three-month internship at the Paris Opéra,” he recalls. “I remember sitting all alone, waiting for my class and Rudolf Nureyev arrived. I greeted him, as is the tradition when you run into a danseur étoile [principal dancer]. He stopped, looked at me, and returned the bow. I was 11.”
Ballerina will appeal to a wide audience, but remains quintessentially French and stands out from the cartoon crowd. “We were often told that any self-respecting animated film needs to have animals which talk, and heroes who break into song,” says co-producer Nicolas Duval-adassovsky.” But we preferred to bank on the realism of the story, the coherence between the characters and the course of their adventures.”
Now, a little like Félicie, the Ballerina crew will watch nervously as their film heads out into the world. Ballerina is in cinemas from 19 December.
The latest offering from brothers Jean-pierre and Luc Dardenne is a detective film with a difference. At its heart, The Unknown Girl has a sleuth who carries a thermometer, not a gun, and prefers wearing a hoody to a trench coat. Fiercely determined to find out the truth behind the death of a young girl, Dr Jenny Davin (Haenel) makes a fascinating protagonist in this Franco-belgian production that underlines why the Dardennes are seen as masters of social realist drama.
Davin is a young doctor moving up in the world who, late one night at her surgery in Liège in Belgium, makes a fatal mistake. When she hears someone pushing the buzzer after hours she refuses to open up, telling her intern Julien (Bonnaud): “Someone who comes this late doesn’t care how tired we are.”
The following day, Davin is shocked to hear from police that the body of a girl has been found just down the road. CCTV footage shows the teenager frantically running from someone and trying to get into the surgery. If only Davin had let her in, she might still be alive. Wracked with guilt, the doctor tries to discover the victim’s identity and how she died. As she digs into the girl’s past, Davin runs into resistance from the police and several shady characters.
In typical Dardennes fashion, The Unknown Girl moves slowly but rewards your patience with some intriguing insights into guilt, accountability and the plight of immigrants and working-class communities. And while a slightly contrived storyline means this won’t rate among the brothers’ best work, there is still plenty to take away from a beautifully restrained film.