Tuesday, November 5, 2013

French Dance in French Film: A Direct Translation

Vers Mathilde (2005), directed by Claire Denis

Vers Mathilde, the 2005 dance documentary by French filmmaker Claire Denis, is a stunning achievement. It takes as its subject Mathilde Monnier, the director of France’s Centre Chorégraphique National de Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon in Montpellier. She is the Mathilde in a title whose only other word translates as towards. There is no verb connecting the two words. The action is all in the film, an intimate look at how Monnier creates a dance quite literally out of thin air, propelled forward by her own winnowing body and the ideas that come swirling out and around it.

Denis, the subject of an ongoing retrospective of her films at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto, is clearly a fan. She allows Monnier to move unfettered by her roving camera which follows her unobtrusively even as it sometimes closes tightly in on her striking and chiseled fiftysomething face to capture the intelligence of the mind lying within. It is obvious that Denis has asked some questions about process, because Monnier speaks out loud to an invisible listener, describing, for instance, what warming up for one of her dances means to her (a heightened sense of being in the moment) and what it is she is trying to achieve (a theatrical creation where the unexpected is the only rule).

Director Claire Denis
The film screens tonight (Tuesday, November 5) at 6:30, and is a must-see both for lovers of Denis’s work and French avant-garde dance. Monnier's choreography is abstract, that is, not tied to narrative or an inspiring piece of music. One of the works seen in the film is a case in point. Originally created in 2002 and called Déroutes, a military term meaning total collapse, it is more influenced by concepts in visual art (the presence of absence) and by the collective assembled to perform it. The dancers are male and female, white and black, athletically built as well as plump and round. As part of the creation process, Monnier has asked each to interpret, in their own way, the idea of not walking. The results are sometimes explosive such as when one of her Asian dancers thumps the floor of the stage with an angry fist, and collapses in frustration after again and again pulling herself back up to her feet to march. Monnier’s whispered observations, heard as a voice-over, provide a running commentary. It is the whole of the Korean army. It is magnifique.

The camera also records Monnier in less uplifting moments, such as when she sits, her back to the lens, muttering how it is all shit. What am I doing here?, she moans quietly to herself. It is a forceful insight into the creative mind, wavering between the elation of new discovery and the lows of self-doubt. It is what makes Vers Mathilde an extraordinary film. It is a true portrait of creativity in the making, a combination of strength and fragility, of how art is an elusive dream made flesh-and-blood real.

Admittedly, not everyone will relate to it. This is a film for lovers of aesthetics, and especially lovers of dance and choreography. To rate how exciting it is, think of what a film might look like that was based on watching a poet write poetry. Not exactly the stuff of great drama. And yet for those who care how dance (or art for that matter) is made then this film is inherently compelling and dramatic. Monnier knows what she wants, or thinks she knows, and is constantly pushing the dancers through improvisation to define what is she is seeing in her head. Denis shows her in the process of shaping and reshaping, dancing and stopping, moving and writing. Some of what she discards in her creation of a choreographic work is as interesting as what stays. But only she knows what works and what doesn’t, and she is quick to dismiss a movement idea when she thinks it too obvious, or too forced. Art in this case really is in the eye of the beholder.

Mathilde Monnier in Vers Mathilde

It is fascinating to watch Monnier in the role of a visionary in pursuit of a complex vision of art. She reaches her goal through a continuous reinvention of dance language and technique. She is constantly experimenting with movement, often doodling with her own body as she searches for new expressions. This is not dance in the ordinary definition of the word. This is dance as a personal pathway, a quest for a meaning beyond words. In the film, Monnier refers to her movement experiments as scratches on the air. Once they are executed they are forever etched on memory. She illustrates what she means using slippery, serpentine movements of the arms and hands that completely hypnotize. I adore moving with my arms, she says, and keeps on undulating those limbs, underscoring that at the core of her intellectual inquiry is a sensual connection to her own body – a love of dance.

There's a sequence in the film having to do with a piece in which dancers change seats with an actual philosopher. One of the cast asks who will know who is who and Monnier, obviously not one to suffer fools gladly, states the obvious: that the audience will know which one doesn’t at all look like a dancer. (That is, the one wearing glasses while holding a book on top his table of a tummy.) But lest this make Monnier sound like a dragon lady, by dance director standards she is a pussycat. Monnier never stints on doling out praise to her dancers. She works well with her composer, Erikm, the celebrated French improviser and visual artist, even as she brusquely tells him to to toss out sonic sketches she deems predictable. The aim is a sound score that will create the right atmosphere for a dance that is about limitations and working through them. At one point Erikm is seen blowing into plastic tubes to get the desired effect. It is one of a series of backstage views that make the film's perspective on artistic creation so extraordinary. Out of a puff of air an artwork is born. The results are truly magical.

Objects of Desire: The Cinema of Claire Denis (Oct 11 to Nov 10) is the first retrospective of Denis' films at TIFF Cinematheque in over a decade. Comprised of 13 features and 4 short films, it chronicles the ongoing journey of this master French filmmaker who has established herself as one of the true visionaries of contemporary world cinema through the boldness, curiosity, and uniquely sensual sense present in her body of work, constantly inviting us to see the world in different ways.

– Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Her new book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, is published by Greystone Books (D&M Books). Visit Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection and Paris Times Eight on Facebook, and check out www.deirdrekelly.com for more book updates. On Nov 28, Ballerina will be the focus of an author's talk and signing at the Collingwood Public library in Collingwood, ON starting at 7pm.

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