It may fairly be said I am obsessed with masked balls. Their inherent glamour, intimations of decadence and self-indulgence, the possibilities for game play and perhaps above all, their visual richness. The sequences in this list bear ample witness but otherwise represent nothing more than my own preference and opinion, with a smattering of interesting facts. Needless to say, I hold no rights over the clips herein and use them only for purposes for review. In all cases, I urge the interested to purchase an official copy of the complete film for their uncompromised enjoyment.
1. The Crystal Ball, Labyrinth, wr. Jim Henson, Dennis Lee & Terry Jones, dir. Jim Henson, Lucasfilm, et al. 1986.
A fantasy within a fantasy, a ball within a ball, for number one, there was only ever one choice.
This magnificent sequence is the Goblin King playing dirty. In her quest to reach the centre of the Labyrinth, Sarah has overcome frustration, fear and despair, so his next gambit is desire. The ball is everything she has ever dreamed of and, like much of the Labyrinth, picks up on motifs that may be observed in her bedroom at the start of the movie. Brian Froud, who designed the masks as well as everything else in the movie, has described the scene (Inside The Labyrinth, 1986) as “...they were the gentry, dressing up, and they were playing at being goblins”. Given the way Jareth's court looks most of the time, the inverse has been proposed. Despite the quite terrifying potential consequences of joining the dance, generations of viewers have considered it worth the risk. Live versions have been staged; the 30 anniversary in 2016 saw a spate of such events across the world. I once played it as a LARP.
The original was choreographed by Cheryl McFadden, to music by Trevor Jones that segues into David Bowie's “As The World Falls Down”.
2. All Hallows Eve Ball, Van Helsing, wr. Stephen Sommers, dir. Stephen Sommers, Universal Pictures, et al.
Say what you will about this film, they were trying to do something different with the material. Although staged as a trap for the titular character, this stunning sequence stands on its own merits. The cathedral of St Nicholas in Prague is transformed into a gothic carnival, complete with acrobats, contortionists and fire-eaters, with the waltz at its heart. It's one of those moments when you really do think the undead have the right idea.
The masks and costumes are sumptuous and the choreography, by Debra Brown, suitably spectacular. The music “All Hallows Eve Ball” is composed by Alan Silvestri. The gag with the wall mirror is as deliberate as everything else—it was borrowed from Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), but is a nice touch.
3. The Masquerade, En Kongelig Afære, wr. Nikolaj Arcel & Rasmus Heisterberg, dir. Nikolaj Arcel, Zentropa Entertainments et al. 2012.
Mads Mikkleson in frock coat and cravat. What more, really, do you need to know? Actually, an English translation of the dialogue may help:
Johann Friedrich Struensee: Your majesty.
Caroline Mathilde: You recognized me.
Johann Friedrich Struensee: I would recognize you blindfolded.
Caroline Mathilde: But your costume is not very imaginative.
Johann Friedrich Struensee: I'm afraid I'm not very good at the masquerade.
Caroline Mathilde: I believe this is the one night when everyone can be themselves.
[pause] But you never remove your mask. Do you?
Based on fascinating, actual shenanigans during the 18th century reign of King Christian VII of Denmark (who was clinically insane), this film chronicles the affair between an isolated young queen and the court physician. Choreographed by Niclas Bendixen to music by Gabriel Yared and Cyrille Aufort, this pivotal scene is perfection by candlelight.
4. The Max-querade, Batman Returns, Wr. Daniel Waters & Sam Hamm, Dir. Tim Burton, Warner Brothers et al. 1992.
As the Penguin says, “You're just jealous because I'm a genuine freak and you have to wear a mask!” But in this scene, Bruce Wayne and Selena Kyle drift through the glittering crowd (to the strains of “Face to Face” by Siouxie and the Banshees), the only naked faces in a costumed whirl. Their normality is their mask and anyway, the party's about to be crashed by a giant rubber duck.
The design in this sequence is truly spectacular. To fit in with the film's general tone of overblown gothicism, the costume department created such things as the Leaning Tower of Pisa and walking, talking Mona Lisa—in the video clip that accompanied the single's release, Siouxie is shown toying with the latter. Back in the ballroom, those with an appreciation of classic literature may further recognise a crimson-draped figure standing on the stairs before Selena enters, then ascending as she does. Which brings us to...
5.The Masque of the Red Death, The Masque of the Red Death, wr. Charles Beaumont and R. Wright Campbell, dir. Roger Corman, AIP et al. 1964
“There was much of the beautiful, much of the wanton, much of the bizarre, something of the terrible, and not a little of that which might have excited disgust.”
There have been a number of attempts to film this, but this one not only has Vincent Price devouring the scenery as Prince Prospero, it folds Poe's “Hop Frog” into an already heady, Pathecolor mix. Quarantined in his castle as the plague advances, Prospero's efforts to stave off boredom have escalated to Russian roulette with poisoned daggers and full-on Satanic ritual. The masquerade he decrees for midnight seems almost innocent by comparison. Hop Toad, as he is here named, accurately predicts the costumes; “Everyone will dress as usual; a harlequin, a Chinese, a soldier or a princess. They will be either beautiful or humorous, but all will be human.” While this does not quite live up to Poe's immortal words, it possesses its own horrific logic and a wonderful energy.
6. Climax, Eyes Wide Shut, wr. Stanley Kubrick & Frederic Raphael, dir. Stanley Kubrick, Warner Brothers, et al. 1999
Sure, you say, the occupants of the manor were wearing masks, but they weren't, ah, dancing. But they were! Still mostly naked, to a charming instrumental rendition of Bert Kaempfert's “Strangers In The Night”. This is a short and comparatively tame scene coming just before the denouement, a terrifying sequence in which a galaxy of masks gaze down upon the hapless Bill Harford in punishment for his voyeurism.
Masks and masquerade permeate this film, to extent of having a character named Domino. The masks featured in the orgy were bought by Stanley Kubrick's art director from a number of Italian workshops, including Mondonovo Maschera in Venice, founded by sculptor Guerrino Lovato. Four of Lovato's masks were featured—Screaming (inspired by the Maddalena of Niccolò Dell'Arca), Columbus (created to mark the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America), Diamante and Archaic Sun (maskedart.com). There are plenty of traditional types on display, neutral voltos and spatulate bautas, and one bearing a resemblance to Picasso's “Woman With Green Hat”.
7. The Bal des Victims. Napoleon, Wr. & dir. Abel Gance, Cine France, et al. 1927 (restoration conducted by Kevin Brownlow, 2016)
This silent magnum opus is five and a half hours long (and used to be longer). The Bal appears in Part Three and is the only cinematic depiction of such an event I have found. Bal des Victims are rumoured to have been held in revolutionary Paris after the execution of Robespierre ended the Terror. To be invited, one had to have lost a close relative to the guillotine, or been in danger oneself.
Set in the Carmes prison, it picks up on previous visuals in the film and inverts their meaning. Now the cadaverous guard who read out the names of the condemned recites the menu. Men are dressed as women, one joker appears with a balloon as a head, that revellers gleefully pop, and a woman is “guillotined” by having her head thrust through the back of the chair. Through this bacchanal, Napoleon stalks like the front man of a new romantic band.
A short clip from the Bal, focusing on Napoleon and Josephine, constitutes No. 6 of this list. www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/news-bfi/
8. What, no Phantom?
Here's the thing: I've never much liked Lloyd-Webber's Phantom of the Opera. Partly, I suppose, because of the conditions under which I saw it, but partly because I was already familiar with actual opera, and this opera above all. Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera remains one of my favourites.
Based on the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden (who was quite sane, but nonetheless shot by a friend in 1792), Verdi adds an illicit affair and a prophecy of doom (“You will be killed by the next man who shakes your hand.”). I have seen several productions. This one, staged at London's Royal Opera House in 1975 (directed by Otto Schenk and conducted by Claudio Abbado) isn't one of them, but is absolutely spectacular and has sufficient subtitles to convey the plot.
Keep watching till at least 2:12:08.
And that's it! Honourable Mentions go to Amadeus, The Masque of Mandragora, the ball in the “Whistler” section of Monster Club, Stephen's induction to Lost Hope in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and the footage taken by my brother at my 21st birthday party. See you at the masquerade!