At the beginning of La Danse, an instructor expresses the desire to make spectators attending the Paris Opera Ballet “feel without any explanation.” And that’s exactly the aim of documentary legend Frederick Wiseman, whose 38th film uses the same guiding principles of most of the last 37: no interviews, no voice-overs, no on-screen titles, just carefully structured footage compiled from cameras patiently observing the routines of insulated, microcosmic institutions and environments. Meaning and significance gradually accrue in long takes that drop viewers in on the action sans exposition, leaving much of the work up to us.
Fittingly, then, La Danse is all about process, paying meticulous, nearly sociological attention to the very guts of creativity. Fly-on-wall views of the Palais Garnier—little seen beyond its rehearsal spaces—are beside the point; the elite Ballet’s intense practices (and eventual performances) comprise the heart of the film. Though some might get lost among the unannotated dance jargon and peripherally sketched organizational decisions, the thrill of any Wiseman work lies in subtle compositional commentaries: check out the way a dancing evaluation’s judges remain mysteriously off-screen, their criticisms brought down like the voices of gods.
At Film Forum, La Danse plays parallel to a brilliantly restored print of Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger classic The Red Shoes. Though ballet links the films, they couldn’t be more aesthetically dissimilar. A Wiseman production is straightforward, raw; an Archers production is flamboyant, candy-colored, vibrant, full of excessive cinematic plasticism. Likewise concerned with process, The Red Shoes goes further, into motivation, and ends where so many Powell-Pressburger tales must: in tragic passion and passionate tragedy for the love of art.
Opens November 4 at Film Forum; The Red Shoes opens November 6 at Film Forum