Join the Circus

Subversive, strange or spooky, circuses in films are usually pitched on the outskirts on town, home to society's waifs, strays and outcasts.

A place where the lost and exiled are taken in, circuses are often depicted as sad or tragic dwellings. But circuses can also give off a powerful energy; a toughness brought about not only by the risk to performers in performing death-defying stunts, but also from admitting and celebrating one's outsider status and forming a home with others like you. It's also the power of fantasy and other-worldliness - the circus is a place where the imagination is king, and where normal, earthly rules don't apply. And this is as true in Outlaws as it is in the many circus-themed films preceding it.

Director Geremy Jasper was inspired by Fellini's circus films such as La Strada(1954), which was the first in a series that includes Otto e Mezzo and I Clowns, and which the director called a 'complete catalogue of my entire mythological world'. In each film, the circus works as an expression of directorial inspiration and control, and an exploration of the fantastical, mixed with the grotesque.

The Actress in Outlaws is reminiscent of the character of Gelsomina in La Strada. Beautiful but child-like, Gelsomina is sold by her mother to Zampano, an abusive strongman in a travelling circus. She is whipped into learning how to perform and forced to do Zampano's bidding, but remains passive, calm and obedient, only dreaming of breaking free when they come across an old rival of Zampano's, The Fool. Zampano and Gelsomina eventually come to develop an oddly co-dependent relationship, proving her strength, and his surprising vulnerability.

Solveig Dommartin and Katherine Waterston

In Wim Wenders' 1987 film Wings of Desire, angels Damiel and Cassiel roam divided East and West Berlin, stopping at a circus to follow a talented but lonely trapeze artist, Marion, through the urban wasteland of the divided capital. The role of the trapeze artist at the scruffy, sad circus was imagined for striking actress Solveig Dommartin, who briefly studied circus skills in Paris, and provides a note of fantastical wonder in a drab setting.

As Wenders said in his essay 'On Wings Of Desire': 'I wanted her work to be dangerous - so that she would charm Damiel, who was never himself in any danger of falling. And so I imagined the girl as a trapeze artiste, flying under the big top with tinsel wings. When the angel saw her, he would laugh, no question. And perhaps fall in love.' An obsession with Marion convinces Damiel to give up his immortality to be with her on earth. Here, the circus, though run down, becomes a place of wonder, away from the grit of Berlin - a place in which lost souls can find each other.

In David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980), based on the real story of Joseph Merrick (known as John in the film), surgeon Frederick Treves finds a disfigured man being horribly exploited in a 19th-century freak show. Treves pays to take Merrick to his hospital for examinations but finds him to be surprisingly sensitive and intelligent.

Following the circus-as-freak-show theme, The Elephant Man once again represents the trope of lost souls being thrown together, but here they are found in a place of horror and cruelty. It echoes issues explored in films such as the seminal and horrific Freaks (1932), The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and Circus of Horrors (1960), of exploitation, enslavement, body-shock and separation from society, as well as fear at what people cannot understand. Yet at the same time, in each case it is the performers who show a quiet dignity and are proven to be people of morality and honour. The real horror comes in their treatment at the hands of their captors. Even when taken from the misery of the freak show, Merrick becomes a kind of circus freak to Treves' upper-class friends.

Ewan McGregor as Edward Bloom in Big Fish

The most wide-eyed and ecstatic view of the circus can be seen in films such as The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and Big Fish (2003), in which it acts as a device to show the wonder of storytelling and human imagination. In The Greatest Show on Earth, Hollywood actors including Charlton Heston and James Stewart joined the 1,400-strong real cast of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to enact a day-in-the-life of the circus, including a number of disasters, love affairs and mysteries.

The feeling of wonder is echoed in Big Fish, in which Edward Bloom tells his son his life story through images of the fantastical, including the time when he worked at the Calloway Circus. It was at the circus that Bloom fell instantly in love with a woman, with time literally standing still, popcorn mid-air, as he first sees her. Although frustrating to his son, Bloom's fantastical tales reveal a beautiful imagination and enthusiasm for the fantastical, as reflected by the way in which everyone significant to him relates back to the big top.

In both of these films, the circus acts as a storytelling device and a place of magic, as it does in Outlaws. In fact, Outlaws takes a little piece from each strand of circus-film history, blending them into something that is at once seductive, fantastical, compelling and a little bit dangerous.