Born in a Ballroom (Clara Lehman & Jonathan Lacocque, 2020): USA

Reviewed by Cate Herrell. Viewed at Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2020.

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Born in a Ballroom is a refreshing and lovely portrayal of Appalachia, a region more often in the news as the coal industry declines and opiate dependency imperils the population. The film tells the story of Eleanor Mailloux, or Mütter, who returned to her birthplace of tiny Helvetia, West Virginia after years of global travels to open a community hub in the form of the Hütte, a Swiss restaurant.  The film touches on themes of family, heritage, determination and the importance of culture wherever you are.

Eleanor/Mütter was quite the character, with witty sayings (“I was born in a ballroom and I’ve been dancing ever since”), a love of outrageous costumes and a genuine passion for preserving Swiss culture in her small, rural town. The filmmakers, Mütter’s granddaughter Clara Lehmann and her husband Jonathan Lacocque, incorporate old photos and film footage of Mütter, who passed away in 2011, along with interviews with family and friends who have become family via their work at the Hütte. There are Mütter’s daughters who humorously reminisce as sisters do while picking flowers and shy grandsons who have taken on the cooking. They all seem, of course, sad that Mütter is no longer there but nonetheless determined to carry on her vision for the Hütte and the community.Thus the film is really the story of a woman who almost single handedly wills the region and its special culture to survive.

Helvetia was founded by Swiss settlers in the late 1860’s; its name literally embodying the ideal of Switzerland. The settlers traded turquoise blue waters and magnificent mountain peaks for miles of untamed wilderness that was nonetheless cheap. At its height, the population of Helvetia may have numbered just over three hundred. The population now hovers just under sixty.

The scenes shot inside the Hütte, with its mismatched chairs, beer steins, folk paintings, dried flower arrangements and cuckoo clocks suggest that it is not just a restaurant but a historical museum, with its living history lesson taught via food and the odd artifact such as an antique telephone switchboard. The juxtaposition of the cozy and cluttered Hütte with the exterior panoramic shots of deep woods and quiet hills create an almost life and death contrast. While the economic decline of the greater Appalachian area looms outside, inside the Hütte is industrious, warm and a welcome break. The lonely roads, rivers and woods that bisect little Helvetia are beautifully photographed and emphasize the town’s isolation, ultimately showing just how daunting Mütter’s mission was.   

While not focusing too much on the food, the cooking scenes nevertheless make viewers hungry for homemade bread, sausage and other homemade Swiss delights. Still, the film makes clear that the real draw of the Hütte may not be the food but the spirit of a woman proud of her heritage and aware of the relationship between culture and life, wherever you live it.


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