Frederick Wiseman has been making documentaries for 40 years, taking a sharp look at a large number of social and cultural institutions. His new film, “La Danse: Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris”, demonstrates that his skills are intact. While several of his documentaries, dating back to “Titicut Follies” in 1967, had a muckraking edge to them, his new film is a more restrained and straightforward chronicle of the rigors of working in a major ballet company.
Although the film is almost three hours long, it is still captivating. Dance fans around the world will savor the amorous depiction of artists at work.
Those who have never seen Wiseman’s work may have to adapt to his signature style, which eschews storytelling and doesn’t even include title cards identifying the directors of the ballet company. We finally meet the artistic director of the company, Brigitte Lefèvre, leading dancers like Aurélie Dupont and Laetitia Pujol, as well as choreographers and ballet masters.
But the film is not intended as an in-depth portrait of any of these individuals. And during Wiseman’s time filming the company, there were no major conflicts to add dramatic juice to the chronicle. Instead, Wiseman manages to give us a sense of the daily regimen of a major arts company. (Robert Altman took a similar quasi-documentary approach to his fictional film, “The Company,” about the Chicago Joffrey Ballet.)
In addition to filming rehearsals and performances, Wiseman visits the costume department, the make-up room and even in a scene from the underground sewers, seems to pay homage to one of the famous denizens of the Paris Opera, the Phantom of the Opera.
Wiseman recognizes the financial imperatives that underpin every arts institution. During a meeting, Lefevre and his team negotiate on the degree of access to the company that will be offered to certain wealthy donors. In another scene, an administrator explains to the dancers the requirements of their pension plan.
Most of the film is devoted to observing the dancers at work, either in rehearsal or on stage. We see a mixture of classical ballets and modern works imagined by avant-garde choreographers like Pina Bausch.
In these sequences, Wiseman, working with his regular cinematographer John Davey, achieves a series of triumphs. It’s hard to remember another dance film that was shot with such finesse. Wiseman’s camera is close enough to see the dancer’s leg muscles, but the director knows when to step back to give us a glimpse of the set staging.
Even non-aficionados will be mesmerized by these beautifully framed sequences. Dance lovers will be in pork heaven.
Venue: AFI Fest
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Producers: Pierre-Oliver Bardet, Frederick Wiseman, Françoise Gazio
Director of photography: John Davey
Editors: Frederick Wiseman, Valerie Pico
No classification, 157 minutes