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53rd London Film Festival: "La danse - Le ballet de l'Opéra de Paris" (Frederick Wiseman, USA)

 

Revelations were thin on the ground at London Film Festival this year. Despite the exhibition of almost three hundred new films, no cinema turned out to be as exciting, or vital, than that from some of its oldest hands: Jacques Rivette’s 36 vues du Pic Saint Loup, Manoel de Oliveira’s Eccentricities of a Blond Haired Girl, and Frederick Wiseman’s latest masterpiece, La danse - Le ballet de l'Opéra de Paris. The latter screened at the very beginning of the festival, just before the onset of the shuffle of the new, and cast the longest shadow over everything that followed.

Wiseman’s rigorous investigation into the civic structures of American and global society,  varying little in method or form since his second feature, High School (1968), has by now developed into something of an institution itself. This consistency, and ever-presentness, is both a blessing and a curse—on the one hand, we can rely on a festival booking of a new work from America’s greatest living filmmaker every couple of years, but, on the other, habitual installments risk being overlooked, exposed to a critical and public malaise that threatens to afflict so many of their subjects. As LFF draws to a close, what is in effect “another Wiseman” still feels like the most significant work to be screened this year, one as deserving of attention as the most unfamiliar, ephemeral fragments of festival mass. La danse is, as always, a film that gives all that it has to attention, and demands it in return.

A string of familiar caveats is usually rolled out during writing on Wiseman’s work, so perhaps it’s best to toe the line and get them out of the way first. Yes, La danse is another exhaustive kino-document of a long-standing institution; no, there are no text captions or non-diegetic voiceover to tell the viewer who’s who and what’s what (“if you know, you know; if you don’t, they aren’t going to make a difference” – F.W., paraphrased); and, as usual, the camera’s singular mode of observation, in its dedication to precision, clarity and truth, is staunchly removed from what we habitually categorize as “documentary cinema.” Wiseman’s films are, and have always been, autonomous audio-visual studies—committed observations of bodies, work, movement, architecture and light, both under and apart from specific political and economic structures. They comprise an ethnography, or a zoopraxography, perhaps, in the strictest and loosest sense of the terms; a cinema that ceaselessly poses questions of social and human representation, a method of seeing, showing, and understanding.

La danse formulates these questions with regard to the everyday routine of the Paris Opera Ballet, a cultural rather than governmental institution this time, and one which is—in stark contrast to State Legislature (2007)—resolutely in the bourgeois province of the civic. 130 hours of footage were shot in the fall of 2007 over the course of twelve weeks, and whittled down over the course of thirteen months to a brisk, dense two and a half hours. Wiseman’s work is always defined by its sense of unity, of totality, and virtually every minute component of the company is examined here, whether fleetingly or at generous length. The film opens somewhere in the bowels of the Palais Garnier and progresses vertically, through a series of rehearsal rooms, stairwells, offices, workshops, corridors, cupolas, stages and theatres, burrowing back down to the sewers towards the end. Rarely do we leave the interior of the structure—Wiseman is attracted to its curves, passages, hollows and undergrowth (the countless shots of depopulated corridors evoke Akerman’s Hotel Monterey), and it is a full hour before the camera momentarily breaks out into the orange half-light of a Parisian evening.

This architecture hives a mass of human activity, and as much attention is granted to early rehearsals as final performances, daily classes and solo recitals, the corps and étoiles. Pieces are tracked from start to finish, from classical to modern: The NutcrackerRomeo & JulietMedea and Paquita, Wayne McGregor’s Genus and Mats Ek’s La maison de Bernarda. Above all, the narrative is organised around individual human effort—or, in director of dance Brigitte Lefèvre’s words, “united around work”: that of the dancers and choreographers, painters, plasterers, lighting engineers, hair stylists, make-up artists, and, naturally, cleaners. A brief interlude even catches a beekeeper extracting honeycomb on the domed roof, framed against an expanse of morning sky and a chimney quietly belching steam. Formal and informal business meetings take place, administration duties are performed, union speeches given. The flow of money frequently intrudes—at one point, a sponsorship meeting ends with news of interest in proposed $25,000 “trip packages” from the Lehman Brothers, potential financiers whose pockets were, of course, never deep enough. Outside the studio, the specter of globalization, and the question of art’s place in the logic of late capitalism, hangs heavy.

La danse works with perhaps the broadest aesthetic palette of all Wiseman’s films. It was shot on Super 16 rather than the usual 16mm, and framed accordingly at 1.66:1 rather than 1.37:1. The new format serves to elongate the image, deepening the angles, giving increased definition to the distance of the world viewed. The camera’s movement is effortless and graceful, cutting diagonals, searching, sweeping, grazing, working out lines of sight across circular rehearsal rooms. It was projected digitally at LFF (presumably at 2K), and although my initial feeling was that the entire film was shot on HD, Wiseman and regular DP John Davey have shaped a richness of color and physical impression of light still only attainable on film. Certainly, no digital projects that screened at LFF came close to the photochemical tactility of Wiseman’s work or, say, the last few images of Claire Denis’ White Material, the warm candled glow of Eugène Green’s The Portuguese Nun, or the black-on-white fragile fibrous blurs of David Gatten’s Film for Invisible Ink, Case No. 142: Abbreviation for Dead Winter (Diminished by 1,794). (See also, perhaps: the disparity between the thin, jittery DV image of Hong Sang-soo’s Lost in the Mountains, part of the Jeonju Visitors project, and the stable, responsive projected 35mm of his feature-length Like You Know It All.) La danse, like the above, is deeply committed to the material dimension of film as film: the way natural light falls across interiors, reflections reach out from polished floors, and light pools in arched passageways. Take the late corps rehearsal of The Nutcracker, for example: thick purple light outlines the windows against rich cream walls, washes distantly across the wooden floor, and picks out pockets of red amidst a flood of costumed movement. Later, during Delphine Moussin’s stage performance of Medea, buckets of blood stain the screen, expressionistically fading into a plastic glow scarcely preserved by the camera lens in low light.

Alongside Costa’s Ne change rien and, in an offhand way, Rivette’s 36 vues du Pic Saint LoupLa danse is the year’s greatest film about the work of art (doing rather than done). Although the principal form of expression in Wiseman’s film is physical rather than vocal, both filmmakers are deeply concerned with the artistic process of discovery and refinement, of rhythm and tone. One image of La danse even reminds me of Costa’s Sternbergian portraiture: a dancer sits at the side of the stage during a rehearsal, her cheekbones, like Balibar’s, carved out of darkness by the liquid blue stage lights. Wiseman duly bookends his film with two of its most exhilarating studies of performance—the first, a studio rehearsal of Genus danced by Benjamin Pech and Marie-Agnès Gillot, is shot in a five-minute take close to the wall of mirrors that enclose the space. The reflective screens cut a second plane across the bodies, doubling their movement, and doubling our perspective. The camera is alert to the dance’s sublime drift and curl, not missing a step (or, hypothetically, a misstep). The piece is reprised at the end, by Mathieu Ganio and Agnès Letestu, on a remote square illuminated by thick halogen bars, a stage (and frame) as rarefied as that of McLaren’s Pas de deux. It is as cyclical as the structure gets—a work in progress brought to fruition, a chapter of everyday routine concluded. The music subsides, and the image recedes, too soon. We are left at the close with something rare in cinema, something only recently achieved in the work of Costa and Rivette: a profound impression of both the nature and pleasure of art—of dance as corporeal expression, as committed discipline, and, of course, as institution.

***

[note—this article has been slightly revised following the information that La danse was shot on Super 16 rather than HD. My wishful assumption that it suggested a unique instance of, or a new direction for, digital cinema proved unfounded.]

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