Sunday, June 25, 2006

Billy Elliot

Film: Billy Elliot (Dir: Stephen Daldry, 2000. 110 min, UK / France)

The eponymous hero of the film is a pubescent boy from a working-class coal-mining family in Northern England who has ambitions to become a ballet dancer. The basic dramatic premise of the film is derived from the conflicting values of Billy’s background and the ballet. However, the film is not really about ballet at all. Billy Elliot is in fact a deeply misandrist, heterophobic piece of work.

Significantly, the film is set not only in a mining community, but it happens also to be during the British miners’ strike of the early 1980s. There are references to the strike throughout the film, and we frequently see pitched battles between strikers and riot police. Billy’s father and older brother are striking miners, and bitterly opposed to Billy studying ballet, which they perceive to be effeminate and to bring shame on the family. Billy’s mother is dead, but is portrayed as a saintly character who would have supported him had she still been alive. Billy has a friend of about the same age as himself called Michael, who is secretly a homosexual and transvestite.

Although his father initially forbids Billy from going to dance classes, he attends in secret, claiming that he is going to boxing lessons. Eventually, the enthusiasm of Billy’s dance teacher, combined with Billy’s determination, win his father over. Mr Elliot’s growing identity crisis and despair, his sense that his own values are not worth preserving, also seem to contribute to his change of heart. In the two miners, father and son, we see a gradual loss of identity, a gradual sense that they are fighting a losing battle.

Billy’s talent eventually wins him a place at the Royal Ballet School, and he moves to London, thus enabling him both to escape his oppressive parochial background, and to develop his talent. Towards the end of the film, we learn that the miners’ strike is lost, and the strikers dejectedly accept defeat and return to work, knowing that only redundancy awaits them.

At the end of the film we see Billy’s father and brother travelling to London to attend Billy’s first public performance, as the male lead in Swan Lake. They take their seats for the performance, and suddenly notice sitting next to them Billy’s childhood friend Michael, dressed in full female drag. Looking somewhat bewildered by what is happening to them, they greet Michael, and sit back to enjoy the performance. As the film ends we see Billy, now a handsome and muscular young man, make a triumphal entry onto the stage.

Billy’s father and brother represent traditional masculinity, and in this film, traditional masculinity is in crisis. The obvious poverty, gloom and constant conflict make their world a dismal and unattractive place. The State, in the form of mine closures enforced by riot police, represents the unstoppable forces of history and progress, against which the strikers stand, boldly but ultimately doomed. Billy and Michael represent a new phase of human (or at least male) development.

Over the course of the film, we see Billy’s father and brother transform. At the beginning of the film, they are coal miners, traditional working-class men who implacably oppose any kind of effeminacy; political and economic defeat forces them to re-examine their beliefs; by the end of the film, they are attending the ballet in the company of a transsexual. Their transformation is complete. We witness the miners’ (and therefore masculinity’s) defeat and humiliation, and re-invention. The only men who emerge at the end of the film with their identities intact are Billy and Michael, the ballet dancer and the transsexual. What we see, in allegory, is the defeat of the male by the female, the heterosexual by the homosexual. The message of the film is that men are finished. Feminisation is the only way ahead.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

It would also be interesting to analyze a movie like "Fargo" by the Coen brothers, in which all men are portrayed as brutal, selfish and stupid. They have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Then there is the pregnant female police officer (she is the superior female principle, hence the uniform) and the other woman is the victim who get abducted. Joseph Goebbels made movies in exactly the same way about the Jews: kidnapping Arian women and sexually assaulting them, no kidding.

Anonymous said...

Feminisation is the only way ahead?? What are you people on about??