Dance was one of the very first subjects depicted in early cinema. The Edison Studios first presented the Annabelle Serpentine Dance, and later the French companies Pathé and Gaumont created a range of films of the Serpentine Dance, which provided cinema screens with spectacular shows and unexpectedly linked dance to the new art of moving pictures. The Serpentine Dance had only recently taken its place in culture as representing a new concept of movement.
“Our knowledge of motion is nearly as primitive as our knowledge of colour. We say ‘prostrated by grief’, but, in reality, we pay attention only to the grief; ‘transported by joy’, but we observe only the joy; ‘weighted down by chagrin’, but we consider only the chagrin. Throughout we place no value on the movement that expresses the thought”. These are the words of Loïe Fuller, who invented the Serpentine Dance and symbolises Henri Bergson’s idea of immediate movement. Her dance used the light that changed colour and was composed through fabulous movements of silk constantly woven around by the dancer, forming more and more metamorphic images of fire, ocean or exotic flowers. The dance had no distinct plastic phases or figures, but motion in time equalled the continuity of the film.
A Young Girl in Her Nineties (Une jeune fille de 90 ans), the documentary debut of Valeria Bruni Tedeschi in collaboration with Yann Coridian, was planned as a film about the choreographer Thierry Thieû Niang and the healing dances he does with Alzheimer patients by carefully directing and extending their feeble movements and rewarding them with the sensation of a gentle human touch. However, the material turned the into a fictional love story as the protagonist – one of the patients, Blanche Moreau – after a couple of dances with Thierry and their short talks falls in love with him. Her existence was flowing in eternal circles of drowsiness, and almost all of her memory had been lost by the time Thierry gave it back to her by discovering the feeling of time through dance. Continuous movement appears as the only possible communication with those who have lost the context of words (as can be seen in the film, when the patients keep repeating the same word or phrase, completely losing the meaning); movement is needed to build not connections between past and present, but connections between the mind and the world.
Blanche is first shown in the film in long and calmly attentive close-ups full of the unbearable and tragic ugliness of old age, but then she awakes from unconsciousness to life and memories of her sensual origins. Her death-like mask of decrepitude transforms during the dance into an expressive and luminous face reflecting every emotion and thought. There is no future, as Blanche has already come to the end of her life, so time has to turn back from death to life. Thierry becomes a mediator: he overcomes the untouchable death-mask and breaks through the boundaries of memory.
The film discovers an astonishing and paradoxical logic of reverse order through the narrative, where the story, which could take place in the past life of the protagonist, is given a chance to happen again. The eternal continuity of life stands against the eternal oblivion of death. There are no exact dates and events, there is no memory of the past, but only emerging memories of the senses and the feeling of the present, which is brilliantly described by Blanche in one of the dialogues when Thierry asks her about music during their dance (the concrete song was chosen by the choreographer and had qualities strong enough to bring back the memories of Blanche’s youth) and Blanche answers that she heard no music at all.
The film shows the continuity of movement, which knows no temporal nor age boundaries. There is no more ugliness of form in the patients’ bodies, which had been distorted by time from the moment when the dance begins. They all repeat the choreographer’s movements and turn into material filled with the graceful metamorphic power of the dance once achieved by Fuller. The documentary renders the sensual experience where empathy is the only way of reading and understanding the narrative. Both sides of the screen – patients and spectators – act in the same way, following the movements of Thierry so that the last boundary of the screen dissolves.
Edited by Amber Wilkinson
© FIPRESCI 2016