You may kiss the Bride: Romantic Ballet goes Hollywood in Tim Burtons’ The Corpse Bride.
“Narrative Conference” international symposium organised by International Society of Narrative Literature, Birmingham, June 4th – 7th 2009.
© Astrid Bernkopf, 2010
Autumn 2005, Tim Burton’s stop motion film The Corpse Bride was released in cinemas worldwide. The fairy tale-esque narrative about Victor, Victoria and Emily’s struggles for true love gathered a group of adult viewers, who appreciate Burton’s dark multilayered works. The film’s narrative draws upon manifold references ranging from dramaturgical rules of nineteenth-century ballet performances and their subject matter to films such as the James Bond series, Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo (1958) and The Birds (1963) and mythology in form of Odin’s ravens Huggin and Munin. Burton seems to have synthesised the essence of two of the best-known monoliths of ballet tradition, La Sylphide (1832) and Giselle (1841), and ballet conventions into a narrative that presents the perspectives of three main characters in a reversed world of strict mortal morals and supernatural entertainment. The sets of intertextual links or rather ‘ancestral voices’, to borrow Janet Adshead-Lansdale’s term (2007: 32), outlined in this article show that Romantic ballet’s themes and conventions have permeated Burton’s film, whilst, at the same time, having been updated to early twenty first-century film conventions and viewing habits. The film displays three kinds of references to Romantic ballet tradition: firstly, visual aspects, secondly, character and, finally, the conflict of the narrative.
On the visual level, Burton’s work draws on the distinct dichotomy Romantic ballet sets up with its division into the worldly act and the supernatural. Yet, the film reverts the colour-coding present in nineteenth-century ballet. The white costumes and blue colouring codified for the white otherworldly act of ballet tradition translate into grey and tin colours that draw life from the mortals in The World of the Living. In its cheerful outburst of colour, The World of the Dead is livelier and resembles the American period of the 1920s and 30s through its songs. The traditional pattern of the white act’s austere beauty is here transformed into the confines of the Victorian period. The World of the Dead poses as informal and leisurely opposite, where skeletons dance and the dead happily mingle in Mrs Plum’s bar.
Burton, not wishing to locate The Corpse Bride in any particular period or setting, still dresses Victor and Victoria, who are forced into marriage by their parents, in simple tartan costumes that resemble those of James and Effie in La Sylphide. Emily, the corpse bride, rises from her grave underneath a tree in her wedding dress just as Giselle does. Emily lifts her veil to utter ‘I do’ in response to Victor practicing his vows by sticking a ring onto a dry twig that turns out to be Emily’s finger, thereby referencing another story Heinrich Heine embedded in Elementargeister (1835; 1972 reprint). The corpse’s appearance and the veil refer to the practice of burying young women in their wedding dress, something that is re-iterated in the visual composition and narrative of Giselle.
When trying to escape The World of the Dead, Victor appears with Emily on a moonlit forest clearing. Emily, seeing the moon, is overcome by emotion and begins to dance. Her white figure traces a manège between the trees as Myrtha does in Giselle. Victor, the only male character present, watches Emily mesmerised. In this scene, Burton includes the theatrical device of comic relief by having Emily lose her leg and stumble. Whilst drawing on these narrative and visual aspects of Romantic ballet, Burton retains early twenty-first-century film conventions to relay his narrative. The tradition of several acts alternating between the real world and the supernatural is abandoned through several shifts between the various worlds. Here, the birds or camera movement highlight the up and downward shift between the Underworld and the mortal one. Consequently, the narrative’s structure is more fragmented and in need of communication between the two realms. Messengers, used, for example, in Greek theatre and the Shakespearian period, carry information from one scene to the next such as Mayhew, who informs Victor of Victoria’s imminent wedding with Lord Barkis, Emily’s murderer.
On the narrative level, the film merges the plots of the two ballets through the characters’ backstories. The aim not to focus on one particular protagonist creates a threefold view of the story. All three characters receive ample time to outline their origins and situation. On the eve of his wedding, Victor is abducted by Emily, when slipping the wedding ring onto her finger. He is torn between the two women and has to decide which one to follow. On the one hand, Victor is close to James who is about to marry Effie, when he encounters the Sylphide and follows her into the forest. Like James, Victor ponders over his lost mortal bride while stranded in another world. When Emily discovers Victor’s betrothal to Victoria, the male character, on the other hand, resembles Albrecht, who deceives Giselle, but is uncovered when Bathilde claims him as her fiancé. As the third member in this love triangle, Emily’s personal history is told in a song. The bride-to-be intended to elope with an impostor. She is killed for her dowry and left underneath a tree. The jilted bride rises from her grave and seeks love. Realising in the end that she cannot hold Victor, Emily frees him from his vow and unites him with Victoria. A personal story and ending that retells that of Giselle, as the dishonoured ballet heroine too forgives Albrecht and sends him back to Bathilde to marry her instead. The Sylphide too returns the ring and send James back to Effie. Through this action, Emily, the Sylphide and Giselle find eternal peace.
The character set up and their interrelations reflect the most traditional combination of characters within the Romantic period. It is the task of the Romantic ballet hero to recognise the right woman to marry and withstand the temptation of the seductress. Not all nineteenth-century ballet narratives present the seductress as supernatural creature, yet in this instance Burton again echoes La Sylphide and Giselle in doing so. Victor must recognise Victoria as the true bride, remain constant to her and realise that he cannot marry outside his own sphere of the world. Emily, too, deliberates about the situation. She realises she cannot marry a mortal and unites Victor with Victoria. Both female characters follow the traditional ballet set up by displaying the dichotomy between the docile feminine and the ‘femme castratrice’ (Creed 1994: 127). Here again both ballets are directly referenced. Effie and Victoria represent the tamed aspects of woman, whereas the Sylphide, Giselle and Emily indulge in their passions and love. The former is married in literature, opera, ballet and film, whereas the latter is eliminated from the narrative.
Burton claiming that the narrative for The Corpse Bride was conceived through a nineteenth-century folktale manages to weave an intertextual cobweb of literary, filmic and theatrical references and a clear set of ancestral voices that permeate the film in its visual and narrative composition. The strong quotations from ballet tradition directly display the most significant features of Romanticism in literature, opera and ballet. The narrative of a torn hero yearning for love and facing the dual aspects of femininity displays the traditional romance story and a visual setting resembling that of the ballet fantastique. Filmic devices and modes of narration help to produce an entertaining fast-paced film that retains the moral agenda of nineteenth-century narratives that many twentieth-century ballet productions have lost.
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