Athens Film Festival review: Si c’était de l’amour (Patric Chiha)

‘pour oublier’

Sudden movements – sometimes subtle and barely noticeable, sometimes blunt and aggressive – as an expression of despair and lust; bodies suspended in mid-air resembling floating particles of a raw and undefined living organism; the intoxicating beats of techno music plunging the spectator’s senses into a hallucinatory abyss of contrasting elements: pain and pleasure; reluctance and audacity; numbness and torrential passion. Rarely have loneliness and desire been captured as profoundly and boldly as in Patric Chiha’s revelatory Si c’était de l’amour, a thoughtful and beguiling hybrid of a film which starts off as a detailed depiction of the thorough preparations for Gisèle Vienne’s extraordinary dance piece, Crowd, before turning into something else: an entirely singular experimental study of physicality, repressed emotion and sensuality.

Simultaneously altering and subverting one’s perception of space, time and motion, the opening sequence immediately sets the tone for what is to come: consecutively emerging from the edge of the frame, the principal performers of Vienne’s troupe are shown getting sprayed with water by a crew member as they are about to start rehearsing the piece – their bodies twitching with determination; their eyes gleaming with anticipation and joy. These early moments of preparation – an initiation to a world of untamed desire – are presented as scenes of a ritual. On stage, the sight of motionlessness is unsettling. The dancers’ still bodies seem to be frozen in time, resembling elaborately crafted sculptures that have been forgotten in a derelict warehouse. The austerity of the frame violently collapses when the intoxicating beats of Choice’s Acid Eiffel flood the bare space. Stillness gradually gives way to kinesis: subtle and restrained at first, mercurial and uncontrolled afterwards. The spectator observes a transition in motion: the vibrations caused by every unexpected tremble and stir of the body paint an audiovisual canvas of externalized emotion and conflicting impulses. “Investigate the rotations and try to find your common breathing.” When Gisèle Vienne, the choreographer of the avant-garde show, utters these words, the illusions presented with this ever-changing tableau vivant are violently broken, reminding us of the scene’s inherent artificiality. Vienne guides the fifteen dancers patiently: they must balance technical precision and bodily synchronization with spontaneity and improvisation.

Vienne’s approach is first and foremost pedagogical: the dancers will be able to perfect their technique by achieving their personal – both physical and emotional – liberation (and vice versa: technical-professional excellence can lead to a sense of physical freedom). It is a methodological construct that may sound parodically theoretical and abstract at first. Setting one’s self completely free from the realities of life is impossible, nothing more than a vague idealized proposition that cannot be practically realized. What Vienne suggests is that the process of creating (art as the ultimate form of expression and introspection) may be the key to coming close to this unprecedented sensation. She seems to be searching for it as well. Chiha is not interested in limiting his patiently observant style to a mere formal exercise that strictly deals with the pragmatic and theoretical manifestations of (performative) art. Every gesture, caress, twitch and rotation of the body mirrors the emotional state of the human being: movement, as presented in Vienne’s dance show, is a revolutionary act; an exposure of one’s true self; an unparalleled outburst of emotions. To dance is to let one’s self be transformed. Vienne asks from her dancers to release themselves from any worldly constraints. It is a spiritual and emotional awakening, a rebirth. Insistent physical work can lead to transcendence and methexis; a sense of freedom – however elusive – can be conquered.

The rehearsals gradually become a quest for intimacy. “Everything you’re touching is beautiful: the t-shirts; the wind; the earth.” Chiha’s film focuses not only on the process of ‘creating’, but also on the process of ‘becoming’ and ‘being’. The minimalist stage – empty yet claustrophobic; bare and cold yet loaded with tension – operates both as a place of confinement and as a more abstract symbolic tableau where repulsions, desires and tenderness collide. It ultimately becomes the liminal space where individuals let their solitudes merge into a collective and communal experience. Time is fluid; undefined. Chiha’s film depicts the individual in a state of vertigo: the initial inactiveness of the body is disrupted by a sequence of delicate moves and hypnotic pulsations. These tentative (re)actions lead to an intensely seductive dance performed in hyper slow-motion, resisting time and matter. As the dancing bodies get closer, the rhythm of their movement changes: it becomes manic, volatile, impassioned. This kaleidoscope of gestures, jolts and glances culminates into bacchic trance-like imagery. Chiha, with the aid of the director of photography, Jordane Chouzenoux, captures each moment with precision and accuracy as the camera gently caresses and observes the tiniest of details and expressions: the sweat, the veins, the clothes – relics of another era –, the enigmatic glances. The stage turns into a battlefield of impulses, a dizzy threshold of attractions and defeats, exploring this intensely beautiful combat doux between lost bodies which desperately cling to each other before they pull apart.

There is the suggestion of a plot: various micro-fictions are introduced while Chiha’s camera is following Vienne and the principal dancers as they intensively explore the dynamics and complexities of the piece’s main characters. The bare-bones narrative focuses on fifteen strangers who attend a late-night rave party. The underground club seems hostile at first: one fears that it would further worsen the characters’ already fragile condition. Instead, their need to escape from reality transforms this claustrophobic space into a haven; their anonymity allows them to live in the moment and forget. These confused wandering souls are confronted with the possibility of intimacy. This realization comes as a shock to them; their interactions – however timid or violently physical – are developed through the pure pleasure of dancing. Some of these characters desperately attempt to tame and control their emotions; others are brave enough to let them loose. Each move is an action and a reaction. Music is their only guide as they navigate through their fears and repulsions, and dancing is the antidote to this life of non-existence. This openness results to a potent reawakening of the characters’ emotions and senses; an embrace of the temporality of the body and the world surrounding it.

The performers build their roles from scratch: as evidenced by the extensive – and exhaustive – creation of their backstories, every subplot is intricately crafted; every motivation and gesture is directly informed by events and memories that apparently have affected and shaped these characters. What is fascinating about Chiha’s approach is that these fragments of fiction do not distract the spectator; what could – and most probably would – have been a cacophonous intrusion to an otherwise purely sensorial ‘documentary’, actually ends up further enhancing and enriching the film’s complex canvas of emotions. Through beautifully written scenes it is implied that these imagined biographies are (loosely?) based on the performers’ past and personal experiences. The introduction of this self-referential element allows for an even better understanding of the onstage physical and emotional combat between them. Fiction is the other side of reality; the latter feeds the former. And vice versa: fiction can shed light on the complexities of reality as well: by reconstructing and reimagining their doubts, fears, loves and memories on the stage, the performers are able to find their personal truth. It is a demanding reciprocal process during which dramaturgy and real life co-exist and complete each other.

This diptych – narrative and nonfiction cinema – is unfurled in elaborately filmed sequences of empathy and intimacy. Shot in intense close-ups, these emotionally penetrating scenes consist of extended conversations or monologues that take place in quiet spaces such as dressing rooms and backstage hallways. These spaces guarantee the performers’ privacy but also remind us of the theater’s constant – and insistent – presence (stage as a symbol of fiction), blurring the lines between what is real and what is imaginary/invented even more.

The performers share secrets, reveal hidden desires, admit their attraction to fellow performers, and explore their sexuality. Their hesitations and longing unfold before our eyes unhurriedly. Chiha takes his time as his camera closely examines the faces of his subjects. Every word whispered by them feels painfully confessional. One might wonder whether the actors are still playing their part – could this just be a clever narrative device after all? – or the words they speak reflect their very own thoughts, doubts and yearning. Whatever one may think regarding the seemingly autobiographical nature of these segments, their sheer emotional honesty and cumulative power cannot be denied. Near the end of the film, one of the key cast members breaks the fourth wall with a show-stopping monologue of piercing authenticity and overwhelming candor that encapsulates the film’s thematic core: “I just want to feel close to someone; feel close to the warmth of their skin; smell their smells. (…) I caress him to feel the texture underneath my fingers, his breath underneath his chest. (I want) to really be one person for one moment together with someone else.

Eventually, suffering and loneliness turn into a newfound feeling of bliss. Despite being crippled with fatigue, the dancing body floats in drunkenness. The harsh reality is usurped, and a purely sensorial world takes over. Every caress and embrace matters. The film’s climactic moments are transcendent to watch: although the basic elements of the film’s visual language – the mud; the fluorescent lights; the threatening smoke; the empty spaces – have threatened to plunge the characters into a dreary half-life, the dancing body becomes a symbol of a personal – spiritual and physical – revolution.

Everyone undergoes a life-changing transformation. One of the main characters is shown losing control of herself, her body crawling and spinning on the floor in an animalistic, rampageous manner. Another character tries to seduce his object of desire, his fingers indulging in the simple pleasures of touch. Chiha films these moments with sensitivity and care. A sense of togetherness is achieved; the delicate narrative threads accompany and enrich the nonfictional elements at the center of Chiha’s enquiry.

A dialectic between the body at work (the quest for perfection; the essence of performing-‘being’ on stage) and the body at rest (the quiet moments of introspection; the imaginary and the invented; the disarming sincerity of the confessions) is explored as the performers submit themselves to a dionysiac ritual. Dance itself is presented as the upmost form of expression. When the introductory beats of Global Communication’s 14:31 are heard, the performers (and the characters they portray) part ways. Each character must return to their personal solitude. They are unwilling to do so, but the party is over. Reality is inescapable. For Chiha and Vienne, what matters is to cherish the moment, however brief it might be. The piece’s main characters have managed to taste the sublimity of ecstasy, the beauty of abandon.

In the final frames of the film, Chiha and Vienne are seen dancing together. Their bodies keep rotating in the dark. Their dance will be over soon. Metamorphosis is a continuous, unstoppable process though; it cannot be thwarted. “Don’t speed up”, Vienne advises her troupe, “Just enjoy it.” This is one of the most vital and alive films of the year.