The terrible sadness at the heart of Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is that the film just doesn’t get Eurovision. Almost all other discussion of the movie’s qualities is immaterial; the central question at the heart of an enterprise such as this has to be how successful it is in depicting the greatest annual entertainment ceremony of all time. At stake: nothing less than the very concept of European identity.
The omens are bad when you look at the creative team. Admittedly Will Ferrell has form in this sort of caper (the closest parallel in his body of work would be 2007’s Blades of Glory, which similarly riffs on a closed-off, fanatical competition with arcane rules, glittery costumes and homo-eroticism a-go-go). Ferrell’s fame, Americanness and straightness mean that the film, in aiming for a mainstream comedy audience, misses the boat on campness. Of course, heterosexuality isn’t always an impediment to understanding the Eurovision song contest; indeed, one recent winner, Sweden’s Måns Zelmerlöw, is famously straight. But a deep understanding of, love for or personal investment in homosexuality certainly helps.
Tone-deaf from the start, the film places a straight love story that is of no interest to anybody at the heart of its narrative. Granted, the will-they-won’t-they romance is laced with spicy hints of incest, as if to compensate for all the dispiriting heterosexuality on display, but the tame brother-sister stuff only ends up insulting the true Eurovision fan. Have the film-makers not heard of Jedward? A deep and reverent knowledge of Eurovision’s immortal folk heroes shouldn’t be too much to ask.
Ferrell and his colleagues seek to repair this offence with the inclusion of Dan Stevens’s character Alexander Lemtov, a rebuke to the stepping up of homophobia in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Stevens, as is to be expected of a man who, er, beat off hundreds of American men to land the lead role in 2014’s The Guest, is a joy in the role, and he clearly gets Eurovision. This is all good and proper, yet the film fumbles Lemtov’s queerness by using it as a side plot, comic relief and a twist. The smooth, shiny, ambiguously camp masculinity that Stevens exhibits is par for the course at Eurovision, visible everywhere from Zelmerlöw to Jedward to Russia’s Dima Bilan, who performed his winning entry alongside an ice-skating performance by Evgeni Plushenko, the original poster-boy for spangly Russian camp. Lemtov’s sexuality isn’t a total joke in the film – although it’s not not a joke – but it does take something away from the movie that such figures are a dime a dozen at Europe’s biggest night in the calendar.
This brings us to the movie’s chief Eurovision problem. Ferrell must have noted (correctly) that the competition is funny when he started preparing the movie – but the difficulty for the unprepared viewer is that the event is funny and deeply serious at once. The film doesn’t show much in the way of local eccentricity beyond the main act and Lemtov, nor does it grasp the fundamental sweetness of Eurovision. The song contest already mocks itself, so the extra steps Ferrell goes to betray the essence of the show. On top of which, the real Eurovision has already seen much worse, much madder stuff. It’s almost as if the film-makers have never seen Germany’s legendary entry from 2000, Wadde Hadde Dudde Da.
Eurovision’s essence is truly camp in its mildness – the show is gentle, ridiculous, sincere, serious and self-aggrandising all in one go. Eurovision is self-mocking, sure, but it isn’t knowing. Other films have displayed the right tone: for instance Bavo Defurne’s Souvenir (2016), which sees Isabelle Huppert playing an ex-Eurovision singer reduced to working in a paté factory. Souvenir is imperfect but manages a few good forays into kitsch, and also knows its Eurovision (just google “France Eurovision 1970s” to see the sort of prim, wispy singer Huppert is riffing on). But it’s not simply a question of proximity: Australia also gets Eurovision and something of the show’s essence is visible in classics such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Muriel’s Wedding, which are rooted in people being taken out of their misery by joyous camp.
In terms of music, the Eurovision movie is on safer ground. Ja Ja Ding Dong is the sort of thing that would rightly down a storm at the competition, riffing on the kind of staple that Love Love Peace Peace skewered more ably four years ago. The film-makers are good on the crucial, controversial question of singing in one’s own language – a recurring theme in the show’s history – but the film’s final song is a drag, since it is trying to be “good”. Eurovision-heads are divided on the question of whether music should be good: I contend that, barring the odd masterpiece such as Euphoria, Eurovision music should be at the very least highly tacky, and at best terrible. We aren’t here for Sufjan Stevens, we’re here for generic pap while somebody does drawings in a sandpit.
Ferrell’s shtick never gets there; the makers don’t grasp the show’s loopy quiddity, the grating earnestness that makes it so appalling and lovable.