on 4 April 2005
This film is a visual delight. It enraptures your senses ... even if you find yourself waiting for the story to begin. It is neither a documentary about the life of Chicago's Joffrey Ballet, nor is it conventional fiction. There is little that could be described as a plot. The fascination is in the performance and sense of intimacy Altman creates.
Director Robert Altman has a naturalistic style. Working without a plot is not unusual - "Gosforth Park", for instance, has a very fragile structure. He tends, instead, to observe the characters interact, to focus on what makes the characters tick: his 1970 hit, "M*A*S*H", is perhaps the most widely seen example - there are sub-plots ... but no real plot other than survival.
Altman's concern is with interaction. The characters, here, are the dancers in the ballet company. They are artists, they work longer and harder than any other artist, yet they are treated like high school kids - they cram into a locker room to get changed, work hours every day, risk career threatening injury, and earn barely enough to keep a roof over their heads.
Altman portrays the pain - the blisters, bruises, muscle tears, the corns, plasters, bandages, the endless pressure. He makes it clear that the dancers can be expendable - they are rarely consulted about the art they perform, but are often patronised or bullied.
Altman has a critical perspective. The dancers provide a spectacle for an elitist audience - who may have to suffer the inconvenience of rain during an open-air production, but who clearly don't otherwise suffer much for their art. For them, the ballet is a social occasion, one in which they are presented with the seemingly effortless. Even the onstage injury of a dancer is concealed - a substitute takes her place ... and takes the bows at the end.
Altman has an improvisational style in his filming. He's said he wants the audience to pay attention, to work at understanding his movies. If you watch a ballet ... highly stylised, often utterly surreal ... how do you understand what is taking place? Altman makes you work to understand what is going on in this film, to value the performance without the artifice of a plot. This is life as dancers know it!
Neve Campbell's skills are very definitely on show here. She was the driving force behind the film: she co-wrote and co-produced it, and pestered Altman until he agreed to direct. Campbell spent six years at the National Ballet School of Canada; she was a dancer long before she became an actor. She was a cute teenager in "Party Of Five", appeared unflappable in teenage horror movies, but here, she takes on a gruelling, adult role ... and is convincing not only as a dancer, but in her ability to forego celebrity status and blend into the background as a member of the company.
Campbell is just one of the dancers. You are never allowed to see her as a star. The movie is more slice-of-life than a typical Hollywood vehicle for a celebrity cast. Most of the roles are played by actual company members - Campbell and the film crew are the outsiders.
There are minor subplots, but the real concentration is on the hard work, dedication, and humour of the dancers. They smile, their faces stripped of any emotion other than ones called for by the choreographer. Malcolm McDowell gives a potent performance as the sometimes autocratic, sometimes avuncular director, perhaps echoing Altman's reputation as something of a control freak.
The film takes on a documentary quality - the camera leads you in amongst the dancers. You can hear the sound of their feet hitting the stage - crisp little sounds, like pistol shots. You can certainly sense the eroticism of the performance - I've often wondered if classical ballet started as a form of pornography.
The dancers, themselves, deconstruct their art. They parody the role of the director and choreographer, mocking the pretensions of the purists, and revelling in their own skills and vitality. They may be on pain killers and other supplements, may be too busy to have much of a life beyond the company, but they are performers, and they live to dance.
Not a film everyone will enjoy. I'm not a great ballet fan, but this movie captured my imagination and my interest. It is not an easy film to watch. You have to concentrate. But the visual spectacle is utterly absorbing. It's a film you can watch again and again and just ... well, just enjoy as a spectacle. But, if my review has intrigued you enough, I suggest you rent it first.