French helmer Christian Faure’s absorbing made-for-TV movie, based on Marie Do’s autobiographical novel, neatly balances the two dominant factors in its heroine’s destiny: her mixed-race heritage and her passion for dance. Unlike Darren Aronofsky’s schizophrenic approach to ballet in the current “Black Swan,” “Dancing Forever’s” consistently upbeat tone matches its heroine’s indomitable spirit. Featuring fully fleshed-out, juicily ambivalent characters coping with complexities of racism in 1960s France, and a wealth of colorful, well-executed terpsichorean material performed by a talented, real-life ballerina lead, pic satisfies on a number of levels. Cable arts channels and ethnic-themed fests should take note.
Following Do’s fictional counterpart, Maya, through childhood and adolescence, the film’s first half centers on the evolving relationship between Maya (played at different ages by Ambre N’Doumbe, Nastasia Caruge and Tatiana Seguin) and her mother, Rose (Marie Denarnaud), a fascinatingly conflicted character. Though madly doting on her daughter as they snuggle together in bed, clowning around like sisters, Rose has trouble dealing with society’s vision of her as the unmarried mother of a half-black illegitimate child, and she expresses her shame through impatience with Maya’s kinky hair and coffee-colored skin (Rose insists that Maya wear a hat outdoors because she is “brown enough as it is”).
Maya is further marginalized when Rose marries upper-class businessman Francois-Xavier (Xavier de Guillebon). Yet every time the situation threatens to veer toward melodrama with clear-cut villains and victims (evicted from Francois-Xavier’s snobbish clan’s holiday celebration, Maya spends Christmas Eve outside in the snow), characters evolve to accommodate each other in a shifting family dynamic.
Unlike Rose, Maya stubbornly refuses to be shamed or cowed, absorbing Rose’s affection and ignoring her ambivalence. Encouraged by her accordion-playing communist uncle (Michel Jonasz), Maya increasingly finds her autonomy through dance, which gradually overtakes the film. Up-and-coming modern dancer Seguin, in her screen debut, infuses Maya with delight in dazzling movement and concentrated grace. Never needing a cutaway to cover up an actress’ shaky ballet moves, helmer Faure gives free rein to the improvisatory give-and-take of rehearsal scenes and the dynamic flow of Do’s choreography (Do also collaborated on the screenplay with Bruno Tardon).
Though dance rules the day in the pic’s second half, racial issues still crop up. In New York, with the Alvin Ailey troupe, Maya confronts the either-or absolutism of black/white identity in America, and in true biopic meller fashion, disaster strikes just as Maya is on the brink of stardom. Yet in Do’s telling, sheer force of will always trumps mere happenstance.
Thesping is excellent throughout, and Denarnaud is particularly impressive in making her sensual, in-the-moment Rose immensely sympathetic, despite the character’s immaturity. Tech credits are sturdy, believably capturing period detail.