Director: Cédric Klapisch (France, Belgium). Year of Release: 2022
Backstage at the ballet. Élise notices something on the other side of the stage. One of the dancers, Julien, her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, is disappearing with another dancer into the wings. Élise looks from afar, as she’s due on stage in two minutes. As the dancers do their thing, Élise jumps high … and lands badly on her ankle. A visit to the doctors tells her that she shouldn’t do too much strenuous activity in the next few months. She may not be able to dance again for a year or more.
Returning from the hospital, Elise is looked at by the ballet’s physio Yann. Yann has an aspiring man bun and a smug beard. He’s the sort of person who spends his holiday in an ashram in Goa. He tells Elise that while he believes in all this medical science stuff, the degeneration of her ankle is intimately connected with the break up of her relationship.
Yann also tells Élise that the dancer who was getting jiggy with Julien was his long-term girlfriend. They’d kept the relationship secret as she didn’t want to complicate her working relationship (yeah right, Yann, if that’s what you want to believe). At this point, Yann loses it and breaks into floods of tears, edging Élise off the bed on which he’s been examining her. As he scrunches into a foetal ball, Élise is left to hop around on her good foot, and do her best to comfort him.
Élise leaves the ballet company, at the very least while her foot gets fixed. Her friend Sabrina finds her a job modelling white dresses. But the photographer keeps putting the women in deferential poses, staring up submissively at their male partners. He says that it’s traditional, and things have always been that way. Élise can just about live with this – she needs the job – but Sabrina is not the sort of woman who will put up with that sort of shit. Soon they’re both looking for a new job.
Sabrina gets them a job in a chateau in Brittany, doing the catering with her partner Loïc, who’s a self-regarding cook. Sabrina and Loïc spend half their time pissing each other off (Sabrina gets particularly indignant when Loïc calls her pretty) and the other half fucking in his van where they’re quartered. Élise often looks out of her window at night to see the vehicle rock under their exertions. Not long after they arrive, a modern dance troupe comes to the chateau to rehearse.
Throughout the film, there are discussions about the relative merits of ballet and modern dance. We hear that ballet is conservative, as it aspires towards perfection. Modern dance, on the other hand, is anarchic, and allows people to show their free spirits. Ballet keeps you rooted to the ground, while modern dance lets you soar. Élise also makes the observation that almost all leading roles for women in opera are victims.
All these are valid points, but fortunately, this is not presented as a crude “ballet bad, modern dance good” argument. At one stage, Élise, Sabrina and a third woman who started off in ballet put on an LP of classical music and start dancing. They are phenomenal. While the film does not convince that modern dance is superior to ballet (it was never trying to do this), it does make a forceful case that it is an equally legitimate art form.
A second metaphor is repeated within the film. At one stage, ballet is described as an old vintage car which is expensive, but kept in the garage in case it gets damaged. The car ends up rusting away while cheaper models are actually put to some use. Later in the film, a doctor tells Élise that her ankle is like an old car that is currently resting in the garage. The problem is that it needs to be taken on the road, to see if it can overcome roadside obstacles or be broken by them.
What are we to make of this repetition? On the one hand, ballet/traditionalism should be left in the garage and discarded for something fresher. On the other, it should be tried against a new audience and not allowed to linger in the past. While this may be an over-extended metaphor that the director hasn’t fully thought through, I’m happy to indulgently believe that director Cédric Klapisch is asking that we bring together the best parts of all art forms, old and new.
This tension between old and new artistic forms is mirrored in Élise’s relationship with her buttoned up lawyer father Henri. He didn’t attend her premiere performance at the beginning of the film as he was dealing with other problems that her sisters were having – one had plumbing issues and the other one’s Wifi wasn’t working properly. His first reaction to her breaking her ankle and possibly losing her career is to remind her that he told her she should study law.
Élise is trying to reconcile with her father – it is fantastically important to her that he has never told her he loves her, just as earlier in the film he refuses to call a meal anything more than “not bad”. It seems that compliments are just not Henri’s thing. Élise keeps on inviting him to her performances, even though they clearly seem to be not his thing, Nonetheless, flashback scenes show Henri dutifully taking Élise to the ballet after her mother died young.
Das Leben ein Tanz starts boldly. I wasn’t counting exactly, but it felt like for the first 5 minutes no-one said anything. People just danced and stared at each other across the stage. And the dancing is magnificent – apparently Marion Barbeau, who plays Élise, is the prima ballerina at the Paris Opera. The modern dance troupe is played by Hofest Shechter’s company – Shechter himself plays the choreographer. But the acting does not suffer from this casting of dancing professionals.
All in all, a film which avoids all possible pitfalls of falling into self-indulgence. You might argue that it doesn’t really tell us anything, but it does this so elegantly that you can hardly blame it for that.