Bodies in motion tend to remain in motion, but almost never with the heart-stirring beauty and grace on view in Frederick Wiseman's exceptional portrait of the Paris Opera Ballet, "La Danse."
Wiseman has been making his kind of quiet but potent documentaries for decades. "La Danse" is his 36th, following looks at institutions as varied as the Idaho state legislature, a Chicago public housing development and the Neiman Marcus department store.
As a director, Wiseman's approach is unvarying. He simply looks and observes, avoiding voice-over, talking heads, any kind of obvious framing devices. Made with their own rhythms and internal logic, his films don't build in any conventional way but their cumulative impact is always formidable.
The Paris Opera Ballet proves to be one of his most accessible, seductive subjects, allowing for an enchanting blend of subject and filmmaker. "La Danse" takes you inside the essence of dance in a way few films can, not even Wiseman's 1995 "Ballet," a look at the American Ballet Theatre. If you don't already swoon over this art form, this film will make you wonder what took you so long.
The Paris Opera Ballet takes on both contemporary and classic dance and is housed in the grand Palais Garnier, the setting of "The Phantom of the Opera." Perhaps in tribute, "La Danse" opens with a quiet shot of an underground chamber that subtly echoes the classic Lon Chaney silent film.
Upstairs in the building's rehearsal spaces, with light pouring in from the great circular windows, the mood is completely different. This is the realm of the young and vital dancers, individuals who carry themselves with a certain esprit, an undeniable sense of being at the top of their game.
"La Danse" observes these people intently, watching as they stretch in practice togs and perform on stage in elaborate costumes. But it mostly watches them while they are at their most intimate and intense, which is during the rehearsal process, working by themselves, with other dancers or receiving precise instructions from choreographers.
Like artists and institutions who believe that titles just get in the way, the filmmaker wants you to concentrate on what these people are doing, not who they are. It's a measure of how well "La Danse" succeeds that past a certain point we cease to care about identification and focus on the wonders to be seen. Ballet artistic director Brigitte Lefevre quotes choreographer Maurice Bejart's definition of a ballet dancer as "half nun, half boxer," and it is the triumph of Wiseman's method, and this film, that it shows what he meant.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Credits: Directed by Frederick Wiseman. A Zipporah Films release. Running time 2:38.