I’ve put off writing my review of Fredrick Wiseman’s La Danse for a while now, simply due to the fact that I’m not entirely sure what to say about it. Like all of Wiseman’s films, it’s an in-depth fly-on-the-wall look at an institution and how it functions; in this case, the Paris Opera Ballet. It’s as good as his previous work, but the subject matter itself isn’t totally of interest to me personally. This is where applying any sort of critical analysis to such a piece is a challenge. I have to remind myself that I’m not critiquing the ballet itself, but rather the film. But with Wiseman’s clinical approach, that can be a blurry distinction.
Wiseman’s work isn’t story-less or structure-less, but it’s certainly not traditional. The narrative in La Danse presents itself more like music with a verse/chorus/verse approach rather than anything that resembles a traditional three act structure. He combines rehearsal footage with a glimpse of the final performances of each ballet, all the while giving us an inside look at the inner-workings of the Opera’s day to day operations, right down to the maintenance men. It’s these small details that are of interest. I think a broader look at the ballet would’ve lost me. It’s the attention to detail that captures my interest and sort of transcends the ballet itself, turning the film into more of a look at the struggle to create while maintaining a successful business.
I’ve always thought it was interesting that although many of Wiseman’s films have such extended running times, I generally don’t believe they overstay their welcome. He is a filmmaker that can get away with a 160 minute look at domestic violence case after domestic violence case (Domestic Violence 2), or the 358 minute length of Near Death. I think the reason his work holds up to such lengths is he focuses so much on detail that his films aren’t so much long as they are definitive, as supported by the authoritative titling of his films. But don’t let this focus on institutions fool you; Wiseman’s films are ultimately about people. The difference seems to be his lack of interest in focusing on any one person, but rather allowing multiple people to come and go throughout his work.
In the end La Danse is another great Wiseman film, but its subject matter holds it back a step or two for me. I may not understand dance as an art form any better then I did before, but I certainly can appreciate the hard work that goes in to running the The Paris Opera Ballet.