A spare docu about choreographer Mathilde Monnier, French helmer Claire Denis’ latest, “Toward Mathilde,” is as lean and clean as her last fictional feature, “The Intruder,” was muddled. Offering a meeting of minds between two bracingly oblique artists, pic finds Monnier and Denis performing an intellectual pas de deux as they discuss theories of dance, intercut with footage of Monnier rehearsing with her ensemble and dancing alone to songs by alt rocker P.J. Harvey. While a must for modern dance and Denis fans, “Mathilde” will likely book only limited engagements at fests, rep houses and upmarket cablers.
Early sequences show Monnier agreeing with an offscreen Denis that the helmer will ask her questions to clarify her work, which she will then muddy up again with her answers. True to her word, the highly influential French choreographer demonstrates her intimacy with post-modernist thinking by talking a lot of woolly artspeak about how movement leaves a “mark in space” and how dance is a “distorted language.”
Thankfully, the dance footage itself offers more accessible pleasures. Using semi-improvisational methods, Monnier assembles an avant-garde stage piece (whose title is never mentioned) based on walking movements and involving several yards of tubing, inflated rubber shapes and assorted desks, with her troop at the Centre Choregraphique National Montpellier Languedoc Roussillon.
Although the final import of the piece remains somewhat abstruse, pic builds up an absorbing study of how Monnier collaborates with her corps. It’s this evolving process that most engages the interest of Denis, a semi-improvisational, highly collaborative helmer herself.
Although Denis and Monnier reportedly didn’t know each other much before shooting began, pic has the breezy air of something crafted by a circle of close friends. Jean-Luc Nancy, whose memoir of a heart transplant formed some of the inspiration for “The Intruder,” has a walk-on part reading a theory-heavy text in Monnier’s show. Monnier semi-jokingly says at one point that she wants to get the petite helmer, who appears fleetingly onscreen talking with her subject, up onstage dancing.
Film’s most intimate and mesmerizing sequences depict Monnier simply warming up by thrashing her body around to various songs by P.J. Harvey, a musical choice suggested by Denis, according to an interview in Forum catalogue.
Lensing by both regular Denis collaborator Agnes Godard and newcomer Helene Louvart only enhances this up-close-and-personal effect, often zooming in close to the dancers’ bodies. Shot on Super 8mm and later Super 16 Aeton cameras which can be heard whirring away during the frequently music-free dance sequences, 35mm transfer has an expressive, grainy, retro shimmer that’s miles from the glossy sheen of Godard’s work on “The Intruder.”
Sound recorded by helmer’s brother, Brice Leboucq, is a little muddy, but goes with pic’s general rough and ready atmosphere.