As art forms, film and dance are both visual media defined by movement–at least from the audience’s point of view.
But that’s pretty much where the similarities end (Again, from the audience’s point of view).
While films fictive and non-fictive most often operate on a literal and linear level, dance can be much more abstract and conceptual, the emphasis on the movement of the visuals being created, rather than the emphasized information that the movements and visuals are serving (Did I lose you there? Because I’m pretty sure I lost myself in that paragraph).
The subtle similarities and striking differences between the two media make the idea of a film exploring dance an intriguing one, an idea which becomes more intriguing still when the person behind the camera is Claire Denis, the French filmmaker responsible for Trouble Every Day and Friday Night.
Denis’ observant eye and patient storytelling abilities serve her well as she moves from fiction to documentary, and her subject is one that’s no doubt exciting at least within the world of dance (Or French dance, at least? No media is more foreign to me than dance).
She’s Mathilde Monnier, an eminent choreographer and dancer trained in post-modern dance (My press materials say she’s “France’s leading contemporary choreographer,” which is good enough for me).
Denis returns to Monnier’s side again and again while she works on a piece, and together they walk us (or dance us, I suppose) through the rather abstract process of choreography.
If the nuts and bolts of Monnier’s work remain mysterious, Denis does reveal her basic philosophy, in which dancers make movements that are marks in space, the way a writer pushes a pencil to make marks on paper.
Denis opens with Monnier talking about dance thusly while walking on a beach, and follows her through her personal warm-ups, her rehearsals with her dancers, meetings with writers, a sound artist, set-designers and so forth. The film is most alive when simply watching Monnier move.
Denis is an unobtrusive presence, seeming to simply capture snippets of Monnier’s day-to-day (save one beautiful stretch in which the off-camera director apparently gets swept up in a dance piece, and we see it from the inside out while Monnier jokes about incorporating a film crew into the piece permanently).
Long stretches are devoted to dancing, for the most part untranslated or commented upon, including scenes, and the climax involves a more-or-less finished piece. Whether you find this incredibly dull or incredibly cool will likely depend on your feelings about dance in general; as someone who doesn’t have enough experience to “get” dance beyond a “Hey, that looked neat!” level, I still found some of the stretches rather interesting, as static as the camera and the narrative gets during them.
It’s a deceptively simple film–merely a portrait of an artist at work–covering a topic that is made complex by its vagaries.
Towards Mathilde screens May 18 and 19, Friday and Saturday, at 7 pm at the Wexner Center For the Arts’ Film/Video Theater. Fore more info, click to wexarts.org.