Strictly Ballroom (1992) stands the test of time by showing a mastery of using silent era film techniques to create a story of cultural exchange.
Strictly Ballroom (1992) is what you might call a silly film. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take its filmmaking very seriously. The surprisingly assured feature debut for director Baz Luhrmann is perhaps the strongest evidence for his mastery of the medium. It’s small in scale and closer to his heart which makes a difference. Strictly Ballroom provides a more reasonable background for the lavish dance set pieces that Luhrmann known for in films like Moulin Rouge! (2001).
This film is about the adoption of Spanish, flamenco steps into competitive ballroom dancing in New South Wales, Australia and it’s about as over the top as you would expect. In its manic style, Strictly Ballroom also paints a picture of real resistance to this cultural shift too. Nevertheless, stepping back from the straightforward, albeit charming, boy meets girl story, reveals a cinema of movement and montage. At the end of the day, Strictly Ballroom is in fact a film that would make Sergei Eisenstein proud.
The fundamentals are in a scene at the main turning point at the top of the third act. There’s this moment where the hero, Scott, predictably “gets” what his dancing and “crowd pleasing steps” are all about. It’s about feeling rhythm and not being afraid, loving what he does and who he dances with. The usual. But more importantly for the denouement of the film, this scene is about coming to a profound cultural understanding of Pasodoble, a traditional style of dance from Spain, as a viable expressive vehicle even in the highly regimented Pan Pacific Gand Prix of ballroom dancing. Using Pasodoble as opposed to, say, the bogo pogo.
How the audience of Strictly Ballroom comes to the same conclusion is another matter. Luhrmann draws it out for the audience in a subtle, kinetic, and understated way. He suddenly turns his attention away from the set pieces. He cuts away from the wide shot where he can show the action and motion of dancing and focuses on the feet. The critical shots here are of two different pairs of shoes, a jug of wine, and finally a train and a clock. It’s extremely elliptical, and might even be disorientating if it wasn’t for a classical use of film grammar that goes back to the silent era.
This scene works because Luhrmann is using classic montage. He’s colliding two different but equal cinematic phrases in highly rhythmic editing. Because the scene uses montage instead of a big set piece, Strictly Ballroom can look away from some great dancing and actually provide the audience with a much more compelling scene. The film makes no compromises by taking this deliberate approach to filmmaking. On the contrary, it’s expressive itself as a piece of motion picture art, more so than it would be to merely capture the physicality of dancing.
Looking at the images on the screen, first there are two pairs of shoes, those of a practiced flamenco dancer set against those of a rookie ballroom dancer. It’s here where the real motion of the dance is happening, it’s in the precise piston like motion of the foot. These are shots which reflect a difference between the characters in footwear, and brings out a discussion in precise motion. These shots of feet show a dialogue happening. The framing and tracking suggest a teachable moment. The rhythmic motion mimics the mechanism of the camera. As these shots are juxtaposed, we’re treated to a collision of ideas only possible with this level of efficiency through editing frames of film.
The exchange that is happening between these two characters is one of cultural understanding. This is a highly empathetic scene, and not just because there’s romance and a “feel it in your heart” narrative at work. Juxtaposed with the feet is the jug of wine and a smoldering cigarette. This is sort of an icon of Spain as much as the dancing. So is the guitar, and the food and, briefly, the language. This shot of a glass of wine is an image of a fully conceived thought that emerges from the dialectic occurring on the floor.
And then, rather than cut to one of the wide master shots that characterizes the theatricality of this moment, the film shows the audience the whole location where this cultural exchange has taken place wordlessly. It’s an intimate gathering set next to a freight train, a humble and yet weighty setting. The juxtaposition with the freight train underscores the rhythm, and the mechanical precision of the dancing.
Showing the train with the rhythm of dancing again highlights the camera capturing these images as an object itself. A train, the transitional object of the industrial revolution on film next to this intimate, human setting is a meaningful juxtaposition of cinematic qualities. Namely this shot draws attention to cinema as a medium where a mechanical object creates a representation of movement, the natural world, and, in this moment, culture. The shot of the train is actually far more expressive than even these really talented dancers can show us with their bodies alone on film.
Finally, an elliptical edit out of this really ecstatic scene is on a cut to a clock ticking. There isn’t a more contained or rhythmic object than this clock, especially when it’s set in such a contrasting color and framing space than the previous few minutes of cinematic dancing. Cutting to the clock reinforces the importance of rhythm and the mechanism of the camera, which have produced in the audience a similar experience of a vital exchange of cultural understanding as what occurred between the two dancers in the previous scene. But this shot also gives the audience a respite, a sort of lull into which the previous scene can breath before moving on with the story. It creates narrative rhythm.
Putting all these elements so carefully together has a few really important results for Strictly Ballroom as a piece of cinema. First, the need for words disappears. Second, a tendency to fixate on the performance of dancing in a wide shot falls away. In place of those items the audience gains a cinematic description of a very complicated dialogue. Additionally there is a qualitatively different experience of space, movement, and frankly performance in the collision of the shots that is greater than the best dancers could hope to communicate on film alone. Strictly Ballroom provides the incomparable experience of watching cinema, not of watching dance.
So Strictly Ballroom isn’t exactly Battleship Potemkin (1925), but it is using the same cinematic techniques to produce a complex dialogue that fits within the narrative of the film. It’s not Carlos Saura’s Flamenco Trilogy either. It doesn’t cover the continental diaspora of the Romany people like Latcho Drom (1993). It’s a silly film, but it’s one that doesn’t disappoint, and which endures as a strong work of cinema.