Moving Through Space
Sarah Silver on Vers Mathilde

So much of Vers Mathilde, Claire Denis’s exploration of the work of Modern dance choreographer Mathilde Monnier, can be appreciated by considering what is not there, what was left out. There is no introductory prologue, no “Hello my name is…” exposition or text appearing on screen to tell us a brief history of the person whose voice will dominate the film, a woman we can only assume to be Mathilde. There is certainly no cutaway to a photo of Mathilde as a young girl in pink tights and princess crown with voice over explaining how she “always knew she wanted to be a dancer.”

Instead, the film begins with a female voice waxing poetic on the notion of movement as her disembodied arm cuts through the air. “The movement leaves a mark,” the voice says, and during the course of the film we are given ample opportunity to observe the precise, complex hieroglyphs carved into space by Monnier and her ilk, a diverse group of dancers assembled for her 2004 piece, Déroutes, all of whom move very much like her. Monnier continues explaining her philosophy of dance: “Something clear isn’t always interesting,” comes in the middle of a string of vague references to her methodology. We get the feeling she is grappling with Denis’s desire to document her creative process on film, and in her reticence is something akin to the sentiment often credited to Frank Zappa: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

The interpretation of one art form through another does require a certain amount of translation, and if ever a director was suited to translate Monnier’s aesthetic to film, it’s Denis (whose often abstruse filmmaking proves her unwavering belief that “Something clear isn’t always interesting”). Denis is so attuned to Monnier’s sensibilities that one can’t help but notice that, by observing this avant-garde female artist on the cusp of fifty, Denis, an avant-garde female artist on the cusp of sixty, is simultaneously observing herself. After all, Denis’s is a kinetic cinema, with mise-en-scène and editing invariably evoking their own, distinct rhythms. In fact, her films are almost more choreographed than directed, so frequently is emphasis placed on movement over dialogue. If the studied, repeated gesture of Protée (Isaach De Bankolé) strutting across the porch and slinging his white towel over his left shoulder in Chocolat is too subtle a ritual, consider the series of balletic field drills that take up the vast majority of screen time in Beau travail. By juxtaposing the nightlife of the Foreign Legion soldiers (spent in a dance club, grooving with North African girls) with the disciplined routine of their daily regimen, Denis suggests that their exquisite movements, whether at work or at play, sing the body electric with equal gusto.

Vers Mathilde (meaning Towards Mathilde, for, although we can approach our subject, we will never quite reach her) interweaves logistical scenes (obtaining, building, and testing sets and props) with rehearsals and, eventually, a final performance. As is the case in Beau travail, the training process is just as important, and just as beautiful, as the end result; only the context is different. A distinguished female set designer (echoing the artisanal personas of Monnier and Denis) discusses with Monnier the details of color and fabric choices. We observe the test run of a fabric-covered box upon which the dancers move like collapsible push-up toys, rigid when strung together tightly, and limp when the string is loosened. The box has a second function: a slit in its side allows the dancers to emerge from within, a metaphorical birth. All the while we are reminded of Denis’s off-screen process as we hear the camera rolling and see huge grains of film engage in a gavotte all their own. As Monnier’s team moves closer and closer to the finished product, Denis’s team is analyzing the nuts and bolts of their progress. This creates a tension that runs throughout the film as Denis attempts to deconstruct a constructive process.

Monnier is a rugged sophisticate, all ropey arms and sinewy back in the cotton tank top and khaki pedal pushers that are the uniform for the National Choreographic Center of Montpellier, where she serves as director. Her every posture, even while engaging in simple conversation, evokes a lifetime of study and devotion to the art of movement. During several sequences when we watch her in her element, no longer instructing or directing, but just dancing, she moves like a marionette pulled by invisible strands of taffy, jerked one way, then bouncing back the other. Her body contorts, a human Tetris fitting into precut shapes in space visible only to her. She is a pleasure to watch.

There are moments of self-doubt providing the film with minimal conflict when Monnier despairs mid-rehearsal, “It’s lumbering. It’s shitty . . . I’ve shown them a system and they’re imitating me.” Indeed, her disciples, executing the tai chi and yoga-influenced postures that punctuate the wayward marionette routines, are quite obviously under Monnier’s influence. It is difficult to grasp the abstract direction she gives the dancers: “Let it unfurl from inside . . . Find it in your body.” How does one take what a teacher has taught her, internalize it, and make it her own? The process is so mysterious, it feels impossible to discuss, yet once the dancers respond to her direction, a viewer can instinctually feel the difference, even if the change remains intellectually elusive. The sensation, one of being lost in a sea of intangible concepts, yet somehow subconsciously understanding, or at least accepting, is one that arises during all Denis’s films.

While Denis busies herself translating the choreographer’s process to film, Monnier is, herself, adapting “Lenz,” an unfinished short story by Büchner, into the wordless dance piece that will become Déroutes. In a sense, Denis performed a similar feat when she loosely adapted Melville’s Billy Budd into Beau travail, with its mesmerizing coda, a solo dance number that reads as the total physical unleashing of a glorious soul into the ether, as if any division between body and spirit were illusory.

Vers Mathilde also ends with a solo dance and, although we never quite see the dancer’s face (a white wig obscures it), we have come to recognize by now the signature movements of our main subject. As Monnier performs an otherworldly space glide across a white dance floor, she is moving across a film projection of the very dance she is performing. The effect is disorienting, and there are moments when it’s hard to tell if she is spinning or sitting still. The dance will mean something different to everyone who sees it, but following the film we have just seen, it seems to me to tell the story of confusion alternating with elation, and frustration interspersed with satisfaction; in other words, the gamut of emotions that one encounters when undertaking a creative endeavor.