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.
Maison du bonheur celebrates a very French epicureanism—that old Gallic fondness for fromage, pastries, and Aperol spritzes—that seems to animate the daydreams of drab North Americans more than it does to the soul of La République in the era of Macronisme. But as with any ancient philosophy there are holdout practitioners who keep the flame alive. Canadian filmmaker Sofia Bohdanowicz’s second feature zeroes in on one such philosopher, Juliane, a sixtyish astrologer and casual gourmand who lives in the Hausmannian maison of the title. Maison du bonheur’s offhand genesis (Bohdanowicz was asked by a friend if she might consider documenting her mother, a woman that the director had never met and knew nothing about) profoundly informs its approach. Rather than cross-examining Juliane about the details of her personal history, which would be très gauche, Bohdanowicz simply observes the objects, from astrological ephemera to a well-loved KitchenAid, and the routines, largely centered on food, that comprise her everyday life. Conceived as a series of grainy 16mm insert shots, Maison du bonheur glows with Juliane’s anachronistic spirit and shares with her a deeply considered approach to things.
Luxe generosity, on the part of both filmmaker and subject, defines the project; a mid-film toast to the offscreen filmmaker by Juliane and friends typifies the constant magnanimity on display. But as one mysterious detour to Deauville suggests, Bohdanowicz’s prior stay in France was significantly more troubled. Bohdanowicz’s role in the film mostly goes unspoken, save this detour and an amusing anecdote about Paris’s worst eclair, though the way that her camera watches Juliane’s hands—which are omnipresent—mold a Shabbat challah or caress an astrological chart reveal a subtle master/student relationship. During the post-film Q&A Bohdanowicz revealed that she shot the film without sync sound and crafted the film’s lush foley track entirely on her own by following Juliane’s design for living at home: recreating the challah recipe or recording a friend savoring a pastry at Juliane’s deliberate pace. Image and sound thus become a teacher’s instruction and the student’s recital, so that Maison du bonheur begins as a mere document of Juliane’s way of life and ends up as true, delectable praxis. Bohdanowicz need not say more about herself to communicate what this gourmandine education means to her, though she does make one final gesture of gratitude at the conclusion: she returns Juliane’s toast, dedicating Maison du bonheur to all those who live in this house of happiness. And with her film, she kindly opens the door for the rest of us.
The movie Ballerina, cruelly renamed Leap! for American audiences, which goes to show that the Weinsteins’ desire to give distinctive non-American movies the most generic titles possible has not diminished since their heyday of butchering Hong Kong releases, is easily the best animated film I’ve seen in the theatre with my daughter since Shaun the Sheep two years ago. That’s not saying a whole lot considering the competition (Sing, Despicable Me 3, The Peanuts Movie, LEGO Batman), and Ballerina has many of the same faults: generic plotting and a reliance on the chase sequence as a substitute for real drama or suspense. But these flaws are balanced by a commitment to art and the work necessary to become good at it, and its rendering of both its Paris locations and the movements of dance is thrilling, relatively (compare for example the first time we see the grand school of the Paris Opera Ballet, the sense of wonder as we linger of its elaborate details, to the blurry, partial and indistinct images we get of the library in the remake of Beauty and the Beast).
For the American release, several voice actors were replaced (bringing in Mel Brooks, Kate McKinnon and Nat Wolfe) but I don’t know if any of the plotting has been altered, scenes reshot or not. Elle Fanning plays an orphan named Félicie who wants to become a dancer. She and her best friend Victor escape their orphanage (in the film’s most egregiously silly chase) and head to Paris, where she quickly cons her way into a dance class. Victor meanwhile gets a job working for Gustave Eiffel, who is simultaneously working on both the tower that bears his name and the Statue of Liberty, just one of the many historical errors in the film (the Statue is already green, for example, when its copper wouldn’t become so oxidized until it had been in New York for some time). Félicie’s story follows the traditional training arc: given the illogical demands of a plot-structuring contest (one dancer will be eliminated every class until the final one wins a part in the Nutcracker), she works hard doing a variety of non-dance things to build strength and skills. In the meantime, she’s wooed by a handsome, wealthy, blond Russian dancer, setting up a love triangle with Victor, which has largely-ignored class overtones (your classic Ducky/Blaine scenario). The real conflict of interest though is in the repeated question: “Why do you want to dance?” Her opponent, a petite combination of Ivan Drago and Todd Marinovich has one answer, and Félicie has another, but its a knee-jerk response, one produced without ay real thought: it’s her dream. That’s not enough though: until she learns a depth of self-understanding largely absent from kid movies (a shamefully phony world where even Charlie Brown is revealed as a winner), she’ll never be a great dancer. It’s not quite the psycho-sexual conflict between art and romance at the heart of The Red Shoes, but for a soon to be six year old who just signed up for her third year of ballet class, it’ll work.
Playing for the next two weeks at the SIFF Uptown is Russian director Alexander Sokurov’s look at The Louvre, a companion piece to what remains his most well-known film in this country, 2002’s Russian Ark. That film, shot in an elaborate and still impressive single-take, weaved through The Hermitage, the museum in St. Petersburg, crossing seamlessly through Russia’s past and present, a guided tour of the fluidity of culture and the ways art, and our collections of art, keep the past alive into the future. Francofonia is no less thematically ambitious, though the single-take approach is abandoned in favor of more conventional shifts between documentary-style glides through the galleries, dramatic recreations, and meta making-of looks at those recreations. The film is framed with a film director (Sokurov himself) in the editing stage of the movie we’re watching, attempting to talk to a ship’s captain caught in a storm at sea (Captain Dirk, seriously). The ship is apparently transporting precious works of art, an extension of the final image of Russian Ark, with the museum as a ship floating in seas of time. Captain Dirk has a bad Skype connection, so the director ruminates about the museum itself, covering, in somewhat random order, its founding as an anti-Viking fortress, its various expansions and decorations, its transformation into a museum filled with the spoils of imperialism and finally its modern state. Taking up the bulk of the film is the story of how the museum’s director (Jacques Jaujard) and the Nazi in charge of cultural artifacts (Franz Wolff-Metternich) kept the collection safe and out of Hitler’s hands during the Second World War.
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