It’s apparently impossible to make a film about an institution and not fall into comparison with Frederick Wiseman. Especially if that institution is a creative one and doubly so if Wiseman already made a film about it, one of the best documentaries of the last ten years, La danse: The Paris Opera Ballet. Yet Jean-Stéphane Bron has done it, with this film about The Paris Opera, and while it isn’t Wiseman, lacking both his exact sense of rhythm and his patience, it’s not bad. Skipping along among the massive company over a season as it puts on nine operas and eight ballets, from high level meetings with the company director involving everything from fundraising to the size of the programs to where Natalie Portman should sit during a performance (she is married to Benjamin Millipied, who was director of the ballet during filming: we’ll catch a glimpse of the fallout from his resignation in 2016). There are interstitial shots, as in Wiseman, of the craftspeople at work: preparing costumes and wigs, wrangling an enormous bull for the opera Moses und Aron, cleaning up the stage and the auditorium after the show. And of course we see the performers in rehearsal: opera singers, dancers, and a young group of violinists in an outreach program. It packs so much into less than two hours, you begin to understand why Wiseman needs four or more for his films: there’s not enough of any one thing, just as you begin to understand a performers struggle with a line, or a step, we’ve moved on to something else.
Jody Lee Lipes’s documentary Ballet 422 solved the Wiseman problem by focusing intently on a single artist, a choreographer prepping his first ballet. We follow him throughout the process and see it begin to take shape, while learning about the backstage aspects of the company in breaks between rehearsals and other dramatic high points. Bron attempts something like that with the story of a mop-haired young Russian opera singer, who joins the company with evident talent, yet has to learn both how to speak French (he already manages pretty well in English and German) and sing to the company’s lofty standards at the same time. But he largely disappears through the second half of the film, which is true to life (not everyone’s life is always dramatically interesting) but makes for a disjointed through-line for a feature film. The film suffers from a lack of performance footage as well: we catch only peeks from the wings of the final productions, it’s almost like they didn’t have permission to properly film the shows and so had to content themselves with stolen sidelong glances. What performances we do see are very good, though heavily weighted toward the opera side (perhaps because Wiseman covered the ballet already). The film is at its best in small, intimate moments: a singer stands just behind the curtain, her body drenched with sweat which she dries with handfuls of Kleenex; a moment of silence on-stage and for the audience for the victims of a terrorist attack, which extends backstage, to the security office and even to the kitchens; a ballerina dances beautifully offstage then collapses to the ground, heavily panting with the effort, catching her breath just in time to dance some more.