The Dancer Upstairs (2002)

“The Dancer Upstairs” (2002)

dancer 1


knowing a soul

For the way they move my soul, i think films fall into 3 categories: -those that make me indifferent, unable to push any of the buttons that stimulate my mind and emotions, the worst kind; -others just punch you in the stomach, they just shock you, force you to face situations without making you really dig into its core; -the best kind of film move everything inside you, make you discover parts of your soul you didn’t know to be there. They grab you where it matters, and lead you to uncharted territories;

I would never guess that this film would fall into the third category. But it does, despite its flaws, which are not few. For his work as an actor i always thought Malkovich was an interesting person. There is a kind of disturbed lucidity that overshadows even his loudest commercially oriented interpretations. Also, if you check is role choices, he is one of those guys who gets into crap projects to make a living, and than finds time to work in things that motivate him. That’s why we have 3 participations in Oliveira’s films. Here he tried directing.

On the surface, the story is a bad choice. How and what happens is uninteresting, predictable and even incoherent. But there is something great: we are led into thinking we will watch a political thriller, high conspiracies that affect the lives of small people. The lonely hero who will do the right thing. Having not read the book, i’m guessing it points that way. The beginning of the film gives that impression as well. But than Malkovich deceives us, and smoothly pushes us into a deeper layer of personal emotions, of character development through people’s relations. In the end, this is a story about an interesting character caught up in a corrupt shallow world, who makes his way into trying to live an honest life, “looking for a more honest way to practice the law”. A little bit like Malkovich’s career. We have that character beautifully played by a highly focused Bardem, a very interesting method actor. His character lives polarized by three women, his empty headed wife, his dance oriented daughter, and her troubled dance teacher. How he swings among them is what matters. For how the political background intersects Bardem’s emotional life, i think the story helps, but i found it a major flaw that Malkovich wasn’t able to make us understand when we should really give up on the (after all) useless thriller and focus on what he sure wanted to do, which was to center us on the head of Bardem’s character. I know Malkovich wanted it better, but hey, this was only his first try.

The direction is uneven. We have some poorly edited dialogs which work against the actors and the fluidity of the story, and some bad choices in the scene sequences that perturb the understanding of the plot. Basic mistakes. Worse than that, some times Malkovich looses the grip and let’s us, spectators, wandering about where to go next. This tense and concentrated film requires a gripping direction which Malkovich doesn’t deliver consistently. But we also have pieces of honest pure and beautiful cinema, which include performances. Among these we have a dancing lesson, inter cut with the murder of three people in a theater performance, having the audience take those executions as a part of that performance. And we have the very final scene, a performance of the child, with Bardem rushing to get there. Those and other bits were truly powerful, sincere and moving. Should we have this consistency through all the film, and we’d have something really powerful.

There is something particularly well done: the locations. Malkovich is known to be around Portugal often, so i imagine he chose personally most of the locations. Anyway, they always add to what he tends, they are a permanent character that en forms what we are supposed to see. In this specific point, the film is consistent all the way. I’m guessing a lot of time was put into choosing the places.

My opinion: 4/5 there is a true soul behind this, despite its flaws as a film.

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