By Cecilia A. Zoppelletto.
The sophisticated style of The Paris Opera, whilst weaving stories of mundane occupations with the artistic highlights of this world, turns the documentary itself into an opera. The story, which follows the classic formula of the backstage picture by taking place in a theatrical setting where the dramatic moments develop behind the scenes, reveals a distinctive personality. Although it may display the canons of the so loved structure, Jean-Stéphane Bron brings to it an original composition. Its principal characters sing and perform notes, movements, and words of operatic beauty but their professional world is where the real orchestrations take place. We can watch youthful nerves, apprehension, and blasé artists all striving to bring opera and ballet to life, but foremost the director.
Thrown into the action of the arrival of the new director of the Opera house Stéphane Lissner, we are introduced to one of the most remarkable personalities in theatre at the preparation of his first press conference. The tone of the film is immediately set; the emphasis is on what to say and the reminders are on what to avoid, but the camera follows and shows us what Bron seeks, a continuous work of diplomacy developed by Lissner, who will have to front many challenges and the Bataclan tragedy.
All unrolling in this cultural haven, Paris and its audience is far away. We see Paris from the inside of the theatre, from the windows of the director’s office but we are never shown the exterior of the building, a statement in itself. Bron breaks from expectation and shows that there is no reason to rely on a construction of story from establishing shots. We are put at the heart of the Opera House and its particular language. The strength of the film lies in its complete unison with the musical score, which has more to do with tone and atmosphere than soundtrack. The music is an obvious character in the film as much as the performances, but how this film becomes operatic is in the use of the score as a whole that gives a rhythm to the unfolding of events. There are distinctive acts that bring the story to the fore and the arias that punctuate the narration with beautiful solos from the protagonists. One of them is the new promising star, the young baritone Mikhail Timoshenko, whose audition and arrival at the Opera unfold with tenderness and fill us with hope and indulge us with moments of awkwardness when at first, with limited French, he tries to connect and with attempted conversations shows an eager talent trying to find his way.
The Opera is not only defined by its music as the choir is reminded during rehearsals, it is everything. The set, the artistic vision, and visuals become reasons for controversy when the choir’s performance is threatened by design. The film captures the never-ending battle of all artworks to achieve beauty whilst mediating physical constraints, such as space or having a live animal on the stage.
And in walked a bull, an enormous alarming animal with primordial aesthetics, who is brought in for the performance of Moses and Aaron, and without stealing the show from the choir whose time has come to shine, enchants us in his sculptural presence. The comedic narration of the preparation of the bull distracts the viewer from simply learning the tricks of the trade, and gives that invaluable feeling of being there in the making of things. This documentary cannot simply be described as fly on the wall in its style because of the palpable editing. In the hands of the knowledgeable conductor it leads us again to the operatic structure of moments of tension which are followed by exquisite comedy in a scenario that shows the ephemeral expression of the high art relying on the pragmatism of a hard-working society.
In approaching the ballet Bron uses the same method but the result is less rich and the feeling is that there was either less access or less interest for the subject matter because the theme had been exhaustively investigated by Frederick Wiseman in La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (2009). The inauguration of Millepied as director of dance and the quasi immediate mutual malcontent are chronicled with a detachment that only portrays a certain coldness of character of the choreographer/director. But the ballet continues, at all costs.
The general director tactfully approaches all difficulties. Sometimes watching from the wings, sometimes from the back of the auditorium Lissner carefully observes the whole and thinks of how the theatre can portray a good image to the public. Yet another reality unfolds at the Paris Opera, trying to address ethical choices for culture. Should it continue to support an elitism or aim to create an affordable average? Entertainment for hundreds of euros a ticket is not a world accessible to many but the gallant effort shown by Bron to think about a reduction in price does not get lost on the viewers as for some, we can only come close by watching this film.
Cecilia A. Zoppelletto has over ten years’ experience in TV production, having worked for the TV newtork Antenna Tre Nordest and the London Bureau of RAI, the Italian State broadcaster. She is currently researching the film archives of the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of the PhD research at the University of Westminster. Her directorial debut, the feature documentary La Belle at The Movies (2016) investigates the disappearance of cinemas and the film industry in Kinshasa. She was interviewed about her film in Film International 14.2.