Ravishing images and a stand-out central perf by Charlie Chaplin’s grandson James Thierree mark Gallic helmer Robinson Savary’s debut feature “Bye Bye Blackbird.” But beauty alone can’t connect scenes too tableau-like for the narrative’s own good. Mostly shot within a lovingly-crafted early 20th-century big top, the tale of an aerial acrobat’s tragic passion greatly benefits from d.p. Christophe Beaucarne’s richly-textured lensing and Savary’s attention to detail. Winner of several prizes at Taormina, pic is more a fest item than a theatrical prospect, though cult status may accrue thanks to overall stylization.
Beautifully composed opening resembles the painted backdrops of early talkies, with two construction workers on a beam dangling high above a muted industrial city. Josef (Thierree) playfully walks along while his friend dozes, until a sudden move sends his colleague to his death.
Traumatized, Josef seeks work in a circus, where the vision of high-wire artist Alice (Izabella Miko) floating above an enraptured crowd, her turquoise costume an apparition of light in an otherwise drab environment, captures his heart. Alice is the undisputed star of the outfit, the only child of circus owner Lord Dempsey (Derek Jacobi), “the blue-blooded showman.” Coddled by her father but also exploited, she’s looking to brush off the sawdust and find a way out of the business.
Though hired as a simple sweep, Josef determines to become the solitary Alice’s partner. His training, and the scenes with the two performers practicing together high above the tent floor (all choreographed by Thierree), make for some truly magical moments. During opening night in Paris, however, Alice plummets to the ground during their aerial ballet, apparently killed in the fall.
Grief and guilt grip Josef, and he refuses to leave his trapeze perch, despite the coaxing of horsewoman Nina (Jodhi May), who’s been nursing a crush on the handsome newcomer. Dempsey, increasingly alcoholic and struggling to keep his circus going, uses his one remaining star attraction as a kind of morbid curiosity.
With generous nods to circus pics of the past, Savary mixes in a bit of the sawdust and tinsel along with camaraderie versus infighting, but it’s in the way he beautifully captures the aerial flights that makes his debut noteworthy. Dialogue, however, needs improving, though perhaps more problematic is the lack of connective tissue between scenes, not to mention a spectacularly misguided ending.
In a perfect marriage between an actor’s skills and a role, Thierree is nothing short of riveting. Raised in a performing milieu as the son of “Invisible Circus” founders Victoria Chaplin and Jean-Baptiste Thierree, he has looks, grace, and an intensity on and off the trapeze which could lead to a big career.
Former classical ballerina Miko (“Coyote Ugly”), with her porcelain beauty and china-doll eyes, is a vision of loveliness on the high wire, but her thesping skills need conquering.
Striking visuals from Beaucarne (“The Mystery of the Yellow Room”), winner of Taormina’s best cinematographer prize, owe much to the simple elegance of classic ’30s features. Together with Savary, he’s created some of the most stunning aerial wire shots in recent memory, with none of the “Moulin Rouge” type empty flash. Hazel Pethig’s costumes, with their beauty and careful consideration of color, are worthy of praise.