Merrylu Casselly and Patrick Berdino’s relationship is like a modern day fairy tale. The heirs to two of Europe’s biggest circus families, the pair grew up despising each other, but eventually fell in love just as their parents hoped they would. Rising stars in the circus performing community, it is easy to understand why their families would invest so much stock in Merrylu and Patrick’s relationship. However, as the saying goes, placing all your eggs in one basket may not be a wise move. When the young lovers hit a rocky patch, it puts the future of both family businesses in jeopardy. It is at this point where Anders Riis-Hansen’s The Circus Dynasty truly comes alive.
Playing like a traditional love story at first, The Circus Dynasty evolves into an intriguing character study about the dangers of mixing business with pleasure. Riis-Hansen’s film avoids many of the hot button issues that have plagued circuses of late – though the patriarch of the Casselly clan makes a point to state that he treats the elephants with the same gentle care that he shows his own children – and wisely keeps focus on the performers who risk their lives nightly to entertain the masses under the big top. At times it seems as if the parents are more concerned about the ramifications that Merrylu and Patrick’s relationship will have on their respective companies than they are about their children’s happiness. Every quarrel that Merrylu and Patrick have is like a financial dagger to their parents’ heart.
As the film progresses it becomes clear that The Circus Dynasty is not merely a story about love, but also one of legacy. Riis-Hansen ponders whether legacy and tradition has a place within the unpredictable realm of love. There is a sense of desperation on the part of the parents that becomes increasingly prominent in the latter half of the film. Though they can still pull off some of the circus moves of their youth, it is clear that the parent’s performing days are nearing the end. As is the nature with all business, there comes a time when the wheel must be handed over to a new driver to ensure that growth continues. The Casselly and Berdino want nothing more than Merrylu and Patrick to be that driver, but at what price? The distinction between individual and commodity for consumption is a delicate tightrope that the young couple struggles to walk throughout the film. The Circus Dynasty is a film that exposes a human side to the circus industry rarely seen, one where even a fairy tale romance comes with a steep cost attached.
Friday, May 1, 4:00 PM, Isabel Bader Theatre
Tickets can be purchased at the Hot Docs website.