The Dancer Upstairs
The Dancer Upstairs  dir. John Malkovich writ. Nicholas Shakespeare (from his novel) cine. Jose Luis Alcaine edt. Varrio Battistel costume. Bina Daigler music. Alberto Iglesias prod. A.V. Gomez & J. Malkovich
|| star. Javier Barden (Capt. Augustin Rejas) Laura Morante (Yolanda) Oliver Cotton (Gen. Merino) Luis Miguel Cintra (Calderon) Juan Diego Botta (Sucre) Abel Folk (Ezequiel/Prof. Duran) Elvira Minguez (Llosa) Alexandra Lencastre (Silvina) Marie-Anne Berganza
|| Twentieth Century Fox 2002
|| color 135 mins widescreen letterbox
|| Winter in Latin America? A question of elevation... and metaphor. Film starts with a crew-cab pickup running through the mountains at night... a woman driving. Uniformed cop steps out from behind a burn barrel, hand raised but the woman just guns it, runs him down. The man beside her is unconcerned, although he has the civilized demeanor of a friendly professor. Dawn comes up, revealing the bleak plateau and snowy mountains. Now they encounter a more significant check-point... and this time they stop. The Sergeant in command notices blood on the bumper... but is persuaded that they ran into a dog, for indeed there is a dead dog below a tarp in the back. However, their transit papers aren't quite in order... so the friendly Sergeant decides he'll just take the necessary photograph, frames the friendly professor [who is passing himself off as a labourer] with a snowy peak as a backdrop, snaps a Polaroid. It is, naturally, a significant encounter between the hero and the villain, although neither recognizes it as such. The phone rings, the Sergeant is distracted... the terrorists speed off.
"If you draw a map of everywhere you've ever been, they say you eventually draw your own face"
Cut To: 5 years later. Sergeant Augustin Rejas is now Captain Augustin [Javier Bardin], a detective in the capital. Why not? He's a nice guy -- a family man, a former lawyer, a man of integrity who made a choice "to see how the other side of the law works." He has problems -- time, money, family, bureaucracy and dangerous hombres. Like much of Latin America, his country is teetering between totalitarianism and revolution, the forgettable past and the uneasy present. In fact, there appears to be an undeclared revolution underway -- dead dogs with anti-establishment messages attached to their necks appear, hung grotesquely from lamp standards throughout the city (one even shows up in a closet of Calderon, the Minister of State) the advance m.o. of a shadowy terrorist known as Ezequiel... a populist in the tradition of the Mexican revolutionary Commandante Marcos yet as ruthless and homicidal as the Peruvian Shining Path... Ezequiel, who uses symbolism rather than manifesto to launch his undeclared revolution.
Essentially The Dancer Upstairs tells the story of Captain Augustin Rejas' hunt for "Ezequiel" (from the ancient Hebrew prophet) while contrasting the virtue of pragmaticism against the corrupted idealism of direct action. There's an intellectual mirror here, as if the hunter hunts himself, as is often the case in contemporary crime fiction. Symbolism is rampant. Ezequiel suffers from a skin disorder... and Augustin falls in love with a terrorist, a dancer who is afraid of the dark. It's a sophisticated story, with universal intent. It's the world of the cosmopolitan Latino within a messy, post-colonial culture. The characters are interesting, the acting excellent. The direction? As an actor, John Malkovich established himself by choice eccentric mannerism... but as a director, he's as subtle as sunlight on a blank page.
This is a nice film to look at, not only for its choice of landscapes, but also for its interiors. There's a Kafkaesque feeling about the large research room with its rows of lecturns ... empty except for Rejas and his 3 assistants. Or the darkened theatre where the retro troupe ['60s Grotowski improv] carry out their executions of leading citizens selected from the audience. Here darkness becomes a metaphor that extends into the city, which endures blackouts as part of the regime's martial law... or the terrorist's sabotage... or simply the ineptitude of the economic system.
Some good scenes, yes. The squad of female terrorists dressed as naughty schoolgirls who ambush a fat lecherous General, an assassination lifted directly from the mind of Jean-Luc Godard... a surrealism that eventually ends as an ugly realism when Augustin tracks down a dying assassin in the barrio, still in her erotic schoolgirl uniform, her face a bloody mutilated mess. Sensation aside, there are also a number of excellent conversational scenes, i.e. Augustin's first encounter with his boss, the eccentric General Merino [Oliver Cotton], the Chief of Police, also known as the "Fisherman" because he likes to review videos while fishing from the big rocks above the ocean. Like Augustin, he is an authority figure with integrity, despite the corruption and the institutional paranoia. Both men share a common ancestry... a little bit of Indian blood which not only links them but also places them in sympathy with the disenfranchised indigenous population who, of course, fuel the revolution. Both Merino and Rejas are good men who want to muddle through, uphold the law despite the local poverty or the opportunity for an easy economic escape to Miami.
There's a lot of ambiguity in this film -- some of it deliberate, some of it just plain old film narrative cheating. The most interesting ambiguity is created within Augustin's relationship with Yolanda, his daughter's ballet teacher. The ending leaves no doubt that he's in love with her... yet whether this is the outcome of a deliberate political seduction on his part or just the good old "two ships in the night" fated encounter isn't clear. To some extent, Yolanda's secret identity is absurd, and exists by omission. She's too naive and vulnerable to be the revolutionary zealot she's revealed to be, and the fact that she never suspects Augustin of being a cop is... well, film narrative cheating [even if the script writer based her on a real person]. You know that Augustin's boss instructed him to be "a tom cat", to sniff out Ezequiel by any means... and while there's a lot of rummaging in dumpsters for evidence, Augustin does move like a tom cat. It's a nice ambiguity, though... like two sleep-walkers arriving at the same destination for a rendezvous with reality. The fact that she's sentenced to a cell without light is so ironic and inferential that her phobia becomes secondary to the bigger picture.
The key break in the case comes from -- what else -- a video. Seems Prof. Duran a.k.a. Ezequiel liked to party with his mistress (Dr. Edith Pusanga) and his students... and be filmed. You might wonder if in fact he wants to be caught or if this is just the inevitability of a determinist narrative (as all cop stories are) or a lazy invention by the writer or, well, just a lift from real events somewhere. Or perhaps you don't even think about it at all, just go with the romantic flow.
Well, The Dancer Upstairs is romantic, and displays a humanity that's missing in many similar grim socio-political tales. Ambitious, absolutely contemporary, with universal application. Good acting, nice cine, interesting score [Alberto Iglesias, who did Almodovar's Talk To Her]... which includes a stirring version (despite the bungled lyrics) by Yul Anderson of All Along the Watchtower.
*related: Javier Barden in Before Night Falls
© LR 9/04
Culture Court | © Lawrence Russell | 2004