When I reviewed last year's artless Lyme disease documentary Under Our Skin, I complained about the Michael Moore-inspired vogue for clumsy polemical documentaries, inferior to Moore's, that do a lot more telling than showing. (Another is Food, Inc.) I praised the documentaries of Barbara Kopple and Frederick Wiseman, who achieve much more subtle and powerful effects by simply watching their subjects - and, especially, listening to them.
We have a new Frederick Wiseman film in La Danse, which documents the work of the Ballet de l'Opera de Paris, the dance company whose history goes back to the 17th century. And I must modify what I said last year. In this instance, I could have done with more telling.
I've been a Wiseman fan since my college film society exposed me to the likes of Titicut Follies, Wiseman's controversial 1967 documentary about patients at a Massachusetts mental hospital. Wiseman's camera quietly looked on as the patients and employees went about their lives. Horrors emerged, and they did so all the more powerfully because Wiseman simply let them emerge.
Wiseman has used the same technique throughout his distinguished career, though in subsequent films his material generally hasn't been as charged as Titicut Follies. He is fascinated by the way regular people work and live, and his films tell you what they are about - or seem to - by the very simplicity of their titles: High School, Public Housing. He doesn't use subtitles to identify people. He doesn't interview. He watches and learns, and so do we.
The problem with La Danse is that, for the uninitiated, simply watching isn't a great way to start learning about ballet. We all know about high school and department stores, and that knowledge helps gives us entry into High School and The Store, Wiseman's 1983 film about Neiman-Marcus. But many people have a lot to learn about ballet, including me. Like any art discipline, ballet has its vocabulary, its rules, its stars, and people educated in those details are much better equipped to appreciate the dancing. All those details get talked about in La Danse, but in the rushes of words you'd expect to hear from expert professionals going about their business. I fear that for many viewers, the effect will be simply perplexing.
There is, of course, a lot of dancing in La Danse, and it is beautiful. It's fascinating to watch the dancers in rehearsal, and to observe the different styles of the choreographers, among them Angelin Preljocaj, Mats Ek and Wayne McGregor. Some choreographers are supportive and kind, others withering. Several use a coaching technique that baffles me: wordless singing. Outside the studio we see many dance sequences in a final state, with costumes, scenery and lighting. One is a dance from Preljocaj's Le Songe de Medee, in which the title character splatters her children with blood. I like how Wiseman films these dances with a single camera, in long takes.
We see glimpses of the costumers and makeup artists, and also of the administrators - especially intense artistic director Brigitte Lefèvre, who presides at a series of meetings. At one, there is a rare nod to the world outside the dance cocoon when someone mentions a then-generous benefactor: the Wall Street firm Lehman Brothers, now an infamous casualty of the Great Recession.
Wiseman is endlessly curious with his camera, and I'm pleased with brief sequences focusing on staffers who perform more mundane tasks: the people who paint the walls, work in the cafeteria and vacuum the concert hall's garish red upholstery. Many of these people are of color; the artists and administrators are, largely, not.
And there is much bracing material about the dance world's unsettling preoccupation with youth and beauty. One scene is a very solemn discussion of retirement benefits - with a group of dancers who don't look a day over 20. In another, Lefèvre meets with a lovely, slender young dancer. At the end of the meeting they rise, and Lefèvre says, kindly: "You look great." She continues, without missing a beat: "Have you lost weight?"