Any documentary—which is to say, any film that seeks to confine its subject to uncreated reality, however much the director may manipulate or even help stage this reality—can only be as good as the material upon which it draws. This holds especially true for the films of Frederick Wiseman, the famed chronicler of institutions large (State Legislature) and not so large (High School) who rigorously withholds narration, interviews, and any kind of self-reflexive intrusion from his observational cinema. In his latest film, La Danse, Wiseman turns his attention to the Paris Opera Ballet and, while that institution may lack the insistent, voyeuristic lure of the hospitals and mental institutions provided by the filmmaker’s more famous offerings, he uncovers plenty of fascination in the daily functions of his latest subject, even as he leaves many potentially interesting areas of inquiry unexplored.
Wiseman is principally concerned with process here, the process of art’s creation and, to a lesser degree, the process of an institution’s functioning. Focusing largely on the dancers at work, he shapes his material into a not-quite-linear argument, an illustration of the means by which what we see in rehearsal (principally in the film’s first half) becomes what we see during the live performances that dominate La Danse‘s second act. Mostly this process consists of endless repetition, a very precise attention to detail, and no small measure of criticism. As Wiseman fixes the rehearsal space with his subtly roving camera, we see a pair of instructors taking their star dancer to task for the imperfection of her landing (a detail that will probably escape all but the sharpest-eyed balletomanes), another instructor pulling aside a couple to work on subtleties of gesture and endless groups of dancers turning in blissful unison. These rehearsal segments place the focus on raw process over glamorous product, but there’s plenty of pleasure to be found in the endless movements of lithe limbs and twirling bodies, a pleasure borne out by the later performance segments in which the fruits of this focused toil emerge in fluent perfection.
Although his interest lies principally in the dancers themselves, Wiseman occasionally cuts away to take in other aspects of the institution. In keeping with his focus on the artistic side of the equation, he devotes much of his attention to Brigitte Lefèvre, the ballet’s brassy artistic director who a dancer half-jokingly refers to as “God.” As she meets with an overworked star or representatives from the New York City ballet, dispensing compliments and insults with the same offhand brusqueness, her office emerges as one of the film’s essential spaces, an administrative analogue to the “artistic” rehearsal and performance areas. “The company is very hierarchical,” Lefevre tells a choreographer and in documenting these official and unofficial meetings, Wiseman gives us just enough of the organization’s workings to bear out her statement.
The same cannot be said for some of the other institutional elements that Wiseman films. Expanding his focus outward from the dance, the director offers up fleeting views of costume designers, mask makers, cleaning staff—even a beekeeper on the Opera roof—at work, but then cuts away before exploring their functions too closely. Similarly, Wiseman uncovers dozens of little nooks that sneak off from the building’s cavernous hallways that look like they’d yield up plenty of cinematic treasure if properly explored, but except for brief glimpses in transitional shots we don’t see much of them. Sometimes, you wish Wiseman would pick up his camera and pursue these little side trips, but his focus remains stubbornly fixed on the artistic process. These moments, though, serve to open up the work, offering a tantalizing glimpse of the larger functioning of the institution. No doubt there’s a whole other film in each of these offshoots, but, for better or worse, they remain outside the scope of this one.