An Amateur Analysis of Fernand Leger’s Ballet Mecanique

Ballet Mecanique: The Third Gender Theory

Classical ballet is regarded a highly technical dance form which emphasizes on precision and perfection of movements like the pirouette, which is a rapid whirling of the body on one toe or balls of feet done often by ballerinas towards the end of the performance as a show-stopping move (as in the movie ‘Black Swan‘). Ballet Mecanique is dominated by circular movements and resembles the pirouettes done in ballet and the repetitive cold mechanism in the film may allude to the formal technicality of the dance (In Black Swan, Nina was criticized for being emotionless and technical). But there is something more to Ballet Mecanique that struck me only on my fourth or fifth viewing of the bewildering movie, when I decided to take a pen and paper and dissect the film by marking down every object that appeared in the frames. I term my findings as ‘Ballet Mecanique: The Third Gender Theory’.

I shall put down every element that appears on screen, and shall also give a brief description of what elements struck me in particular. The very first image of Charlie Chaplin on screen in a cut out inspired by Cubism art made me wonder why Chaplin was chosen. Slowly I realized that Chaplin’s oldest movies relied much on repetition of actions and mechanical mime (I know this because I had the displeasure of watching a 1916 film of his which had probably a hundred and fifteen moments of people kicking each other in the rear side). His movements do not represent human movements but those of a character who has been specially created for the audiences to laugh at. The next image is of a woman on a swing opening and closing her eyes like a puppet while a booming Antheil soundtrack plays in the background. Suddenly a rapid succession of images break the flow and our eyes catch some circles and triangles, a typewriter, the legs of a chair, 1-2-3 numbers, bottles, machine parts and lastly a hat. Then we see the lips of a woman smiling but her head isn’t visible – this image keeps repeating like many of the previous images, some of which I couldn’t decipher at all, throughout the film.

The shiny ball is an important motif that keeps recurring at various points: what does it represent or more importantly, does it even represent anything? While thinking about the movie, when I pictured the oscillating ball, an image of the man later seen in the film also appeared in my head. The man appeared hypnotized and that’s when I realized that maybe, the shiny oscillating ball was to hypnotize us. Next come very important images that support my theory: images of pot lids and round objects shown through prisms. The object of these prisms is to multiply a figure or an item, and it only struck me later that I had seen such images elsewhere: it was in my school when we used to go to the laboratory during our biology classes; when we used to see plants under the microscope, the cell structure appeared to form images like the ones that are present in Ballet Mecanique. So does it mean Ballet Mecanique is showing us a person/thing/object’s cell structure that is made of pot lids and bolts?

We get one shot of a parrot and the immediate thought in my head was that ‘this person or object that is being made is going to imitate human voice, actions and gestures in a rote manner’. We also glimpse shots of someone’s eyes, probably that ‘thing’s’ that’ll soon be revealed. The next portion of the film is a direct comparison of man and machines and is maybe the most easily understandable part of the film. Of course the multiple shots of a heavyset woman climbing the stairs with a gunny sack on her back bring us back to cryptic-ville. But I noticed she gave a thumbs-up sign towards the end each time, and even though that gesture may have been to ask the director whether the shot was alright, I consider it as a ‘thumbs up’ sign for the ‘object/person/thing’ to indicate that it is about to be completed. What puzzles us the most is the following sequence of dancing digits, especially zero, one, two, three and inter-titles. Machine language consists of zeros and ones but I’m not sure whether machine language existed in those days. If it did, then the sequence smartly shows how our English language is processed to machine language that does not care to understand the meaning behind those words. But I think this entire sequence should’ve been skipped and the soundtrack during the sequence should’ve been shortened to exclude the part.

The climactic moment arrives – a head shot of an androgyne first shaking her head up and down, then turning her face from right to left and then putting on various expressions. The previous juxtapositions led me to come to my conclusion that this indeed is the third gender figure made out of machine parts to represent the growth of technology. I also have the DVD of Metropolis which was made in the same period and too included a robot as its protagonist. To me, everything in Ballet Mecanique made sense after believing that the sixteen minutes of abstraction’s purpose was to show the birth of this gender, slowly arising out of machine parts. The end shot of the woman smelling flowers makes us wonder whether she can actually smell the flowers or is she just miming human behavior. There are various interpretations on the internet, one saying that the movie is about sex and the circle here is the vagina and another one actually saying that the movie is about rape (that is rape of cinema on us through the explosive images). Such theories only consider the immediate thing that comes to the end when a circle is shown; I believe my theory is comparatively sound and well thought.

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