The second weekend of the 10th Scandinavian Film Festival Los Angeles offers two chances to see the latest work of two actors who have loomed large on the fest’s screen over the last decade. On January 17th and 18th at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, award-winning writer-director Pernille Fischer Cristensen’s Dancers will feature stunning performances by Trine Dyrholm (P.O.V., The Celebration), memorable from the 2007 SFFLA in Christensen’s A Soap, and Anders W. Berthelsen, seen at the 2002 fest in Italian for Beginners and at the 2000 fest in Mifune. Dancers is the second feature by Pernille Fischer Cristensen who, influenced by artists as disparate as Deconstructionist Tómas Gislason and Dogme founder Lars Von Trier, has found her own voice and is herself a shooting star of Danish cinema.
Dancers opens with the silence of a black screen. Then, on cue, comes, “Music!” and a bright light bouncing off the face of Annika, an attractive and confident young woman. Her pretty posture pulls the camera over the parquet floor as she weaves through teens twirling and hopping to “The Whole Town’s Swinging.” “Heads up! Smile!” she chirps, and right away we see that Annika, a dance instructor in a cozy Danish town, is a sensitive coach and a compelling leader.
Off the dance floor, it happens that she looks more like Cinderella than the belle of the ball. The maid doesn’t show up and the studio needs to be cleaned — bathrooms disinfected, floors buffed. When a fuse blows during rehearsal, an electrician, Lasse, gets called to overhaul the wiring. Though he’s painfully shy, Annika beams and blushes her innate charm, and as her widowed and hard-driving mother rather peevishly observes, “sparks are flying.” The studio has been in the family since Annika’s grandfather established it during World War II, when he noted that “people really enjoyed dancing,” but Annika’s mother reminds her, “it’s how we make our living,” and in fact, the unattached Annika lives above the studio, inhabiting the business day and night — that is, until she manages to pull an invitation to the movies out of Lasse.
It’s hard to imagine Lasse stepping lightly into anything, be it a waltz or a romance or even just an invitation to “moonlight” by setting up lights in Annika’s closet after he gets the power back on at her dance studio. His tree-trunk legs and barrel of a torso lumber along reluctantly, and when Annika asks him if he ever smiles so that his teeth show, his mocking grin is so wrenched into his face that his on-going glower is almost preferable. He’s the first to say he’s no prince. He lets on right away that he’s fresh out of prison, but he’s not sufficiently forthcoming with the details, claiming he can’t remember them. He says he was unjustly accused and shows Annika scars of the abusive punishment he has already suffered, yet Lasse is withholding a part of his past. There are persistent anonymous phone calls harassing Annika, and in her few trysts with Lasse, his repressed rage flares up. Annika worries that she should be listening to her mother’s reasoning. Yet who is it that can deem a partner “unsuitable” for someone else?
Until now Annika’s life seems to have been as patterned as the steps and routines she teaches, but Lasse breaks her rhythm and distorts her form, so that scenes of Annika jogging through woodsy stretches of vine-covered tunnels recall the film’s initial motif of the black screen, suggesting that Annika, too, has a dark side: why else is she falling for someone who maybe shouldn’t be forgiven? Is she naïve, self-destructive, or simply loving? What is love, after all, if it can’t offer forgiveness? In Dancers, guilt and remorse are a part of love, especially as both Lasse and Annika confront the deceit and rejection within themselves. For them, love is not just innocence, but also its loss. In its earthy, naturalistic way, the film asks what it means to find oneself, for perhaps only then can one begin to “dance.”
We can easily picture a film called “Dancers,” whether its characters whirl through space or through tortuous machinations of plot, arriving with a fair share of theatrics. Pernille Fischer Cristensen holds back none of the visceral thrill of the art and yet, most refreshingly and astonishingly, she relies on the intricacies of manner to present dance as the humblest and most profound of metaphors. What could easily have amounted to a contrived patchwork of performances in the hands of a lesser director leaves us provoked, confounded, frightened, or relieved as Annika ultimately races to a resolution, for it’s one we’ll have to reckon with, and maybe even share with those next to us.
Dancers is an extremely physical film, but in ways beyond the obvious. Its mise-en-scène is the spacious, high-ceilinged studio where walls are replaced by windows with a view to the trees outside, a place that would be paradise for any artist — writer, photographer, composer, choreographer — and judging by the technical qualities of the film, Pernille Fischer Christensen values and understands each of these arts. Yet in Dancers, time is as essential as space — the time for the camera to linger on Dyrholm’s face, her rapture, puzzlement, and fear, or likewise on Berthelsen’s discomfort with his own body and what it might do. The fluid cinematography and editing glue us to the nuances of the performances just as the intermittent rehearsals of the students frame the film and lace the narrative to remind us that every day is a new “dance.”
Addressing an essentially lyrical topic — the uncertainties of life and the art of embracing it nonetheless — Pernille Fischer Cristensen’s soundtrack of dance music unites the dramatic sequences like so many “movements,” from Swan Lake Suite to “Bésame Mucho” to a song as unabashedly slushy as “Theme from a Summer Place”… and then to a finale that lets us gasp. The core theme is longing: Lasse for a woman who can let him forget his shame and Annika for a man who can love her for her strongest and most vulnerable self. It’s a familiar quest in cinema, but what gives it new zest is the lack of pretension in expressing the theme through a full-range ensemble of social dancers of every age and type. The girl with the spit-curl, the boy chewing gum, the choo-choo train of pre-schoolers and the seniors swaying their hips to rumba all remind us that tempo, rhythm, and above all, connection, are the dance of life.