During a globally stressful moment like this one, it is tempting to read prophecy into even the most anodyne relics of the Before Times. But you don’t have to see an image of a giant coronavirus in a billboard behind Captain America, or freak out that a long-haired, quarantined Rapunzel lives in a kingdom called Corona in “Tangled,” to know that some filmmakers are more prescient than others.
Judged only on his features, especially “Birth” and “Under the Skin,” British director Jonathan Glazer might already be a candidate for consideration. But factor in his short-form work, his visionary music videos and commercials and his stunning new 10-minute art film “Strasbourg 1518,” which premieres in the UK on July 20 on BBC2 and on July 21 in the US through A24, and it’s quickly apparent that Glazer’s sensibilities are perfectly attuned to our era of isolation, paranoia and plague. The “unprecedented times” referred to in every email sent or received over the last four months are, on an artistic level at least, precedented.
One precedent is 502 years old, to the month. In Strasbourg, in July of 1518, a woman walked into the street outside her house and started to dance. Not only could she not be prevailed upon to stop, soon other townspeople joined her as though infected with the same disease, or as the superstitions of the time would have it, struck down by the same curse. As many as 400 people are reported to have participated in this involuntary dance of desperation, and at its height, it was said to be claiming up to 15 lives in a single day, mostly through dehydration and injury.
Produced by Academy Films, BBC Films and BBC Arts as part of the “Culture in Quarantine” series, “Strasbourg 1518” also begins with a lone woman dancing, but as an immaculately executed and extraordinarily beautiful 10-minute piece of abstract, non-narrative art, it makes no further direct reference to the Renaissance-era dancing plague. The mystery of Strasbourg’s historical encounter with “St Vitus’ Dance” (named after the saint believed to have cursed the afflicted who is, more or less coincidentally, the patron saint of actors, dancers, dogs, storms, snake bites, oversleeping and epilepsy) becomes just one of the short film’s constellation of external reference points.
There is no story. There are no characters. And aside from a tiny snatch of speech that recurs glitchily on the soundtrack, there is no dialogue. What there is is movement, music, mania. Bodies bending in bare rooms; wall sockets and whipping hair; angles and elbows and repeated gestures — the washing of hands, the exposing of a belly beneath a bright red top, the perpetual motion machine of a woman slipping off a loose cardigan and sliding back into it. The dancers, some of them from Pina Bausch’s company, some associated with Sadler’s Wells, are each alone in an empty room (it’s not clear which country any one of them is in, though Germany and Senegal are among the production centers listed), mostly dressed in monochromatic blacks and grays, their jerking and jiving — sometimes graceful, sometimes grotesque — recorded in crisp locked-off iPhone images.
The simplicity of the presentation belies its exactitude. Under the ticking nerviness of Mica Levi’s score, which layers quasi-animalistic squeaking sounds over a staticky beat that can switch into fluttery double time without warning, like a bpm-based anxiety attack, occasional dawn-chorus birdsong and the shifting light in the various rooms cue us to infer that the dancing is going on for days and nights and days. And over the course of its brisk 10 minutes, the editing rhythm changes as if the film itself becomes infected. After a sedate, observational beginning, the cuts begin to stutter and rapidly to pick up speed until the images of flailing arms and twisting torsos are almost strobing on the screen, creating one many-limbed, hydra-headed dancer even while the footage is chopped into ever-smaller fragments.
Superstar DP Darius Khondji oversaw the cinematography, working with Glazer for the first time, though he feels part of the same “diaspora,” having recently shot “Anima,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s outwardly similar dance-based short, starring and set to the music of Glazer’s frequent collaborator, Thom Yorke. Both Levi and editor Paul Watts have worked with Glazer before, however, on “Under the Skin” and most recently on his last short film, 2019’s “The Fall.” A 7-minute waking nightmare (currently streaming on Mubi) and an allegory about mob mentality, it has its own moment of sinister dance. One of the ghoulishly masked attackers, who has just taken part in a lynching, does a little jig as he walks away from the scene of his barbarity. It looks, sickeningly, like triumph.
This malevolence, this persecution and pursuit, also informs many of Glazer’s music videos, especially those associated with Radiohead, a band semi-synonymous with the paranoia and disaffection of modern life. In “Karma Police,” frontman Yorke lolls in the tacky plush velvet backseat of a vintage Chrysler New Yorker which is relentlessly, but with almost sardonic unhurriedness, chasing down a wheezing man running on a nighttime road a few meters ahead. And in the video for UNKLE’s “Rabbit in Your Headlights” which features Yorke on vocals, we’re again witnessing attempted vehicular manslaughter as a muttering, mad-eyed Denis Lavant stumbles on foot through a traffic tunnel, getting repeatedly sideswiped and run over by uncaring passing motorists.
Elsewhere, dance scenes, transcendent or terrible, recur across Glazer’s work. Sometimes they are joyful and inventive, like the slippery, shifting room in Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity” video. Sometimes they are comical, like in Glazer’s famously canned Cadbury’s Flake commercial where a devil (Lavant again) seduces a handful of swooning virgins with his bizarrely suggestive moves. Sometimes they prefigure his latest work almost directly, as in the sinewy power of the street-tangoing couple in his spot for Volkswagen Polo. And the black-clad performers of “Strasbourg 1518” have their earliest echo in the beloved “Street Spirit” spot, again for Radiohead, in which dancers in rippling nun-like outfits hover in impossible slow motion four feet off the ground amid barking dogs and breaking glass.
In the best of Glazer’s work (and here you can also include “Under the Skin,” which somehow combined uncannily polished, enigmatic visual effects with vérité Glaswegian grittiness), there is always the detail that makes even the highest concept feel real. It’s the craggy face of the wall-eyed surfer in the Guinness ad that sells the overwhelming painterly beauty of the literal white horses summoned like gods out of the roiling sea. It’s the rippling skydiver-skin on the face of the woman tumbling ecstatically upward into the air in his spot for Apple Watch. And in “Strasbourg 1518,” it’s those exposed electrical outlets, the camera wobble when a dancer lands heavily, and the damp scribbles left behind where a woman’s wet hands and trailing black hair splatted across the blank wall against which she landed, as though flung like a ragdoll.
These grimy details contribute to the film’s sinewy, tactile physicality. The soft boom of feet impacting on floorboards, the slapping of flesh against skin as a hand strikes a leg, the gasping and sighing of ragged breaths — just because it is abstract does not mean “Strasbourg 1518” is cerebral. It is so viscerally engaged with the bodies it examines that it could make those of us self-isolating and starving for physical touch a little punch-drunk with the voluptuous heft of its filmmaking.
Glazer’s most characteristically gloomy shorts tend to end with a wry, perversely optimistic twist. The panting, perspiring man in the “Karma Police” clip gets to enact fiery revenge on the pursuing car; Lavant’s character in “Rabbit in Your Headlights” stands in a Christlike pose in front of yet another oncoming vehicle and this time it crumples around him, just as the walls crumble into brick and dust as a young couple pound through them in Glazer’s famous Levi’s “Odyssey” spot. Even the victim in “The Fall” unexpectedly survives, and is seen finally, painfully beginning the slow, scrabbling ascent back to the light.
“Strasbourg 1518” does not have quite such a dramatic note of defiance or resilience to finish on; we are still, after all, in the throes of this pandemic without a real idea as to how or when it will end. But there is the sense that simply continuing on is victory enough for now — sometimes the dancers collapse or crumple abruptly to the floor, but they always get up again.
And so the film stands as both a doomy portrait of feverish contagion and a tribute to endurance, a tiny work of collaborative art in its own right. But seen within the continuum of Glazer’s portfolio, it also feels like a part of a greater whole, an ongoing project that paradoxically connects and unifies through recurrent themes of alienation and solitude, just as “Strasbourg 1518” connects all its far-flung bodies in an unseen but almost palpable lattice of syncopation and solidarity. A collective expression of loneliness may not be the same as togetherness, but in these unprecedented times, it might be the next best thing: alone in our rooms, in our separated lives, there is some comfort in the idea that we’re all going mad to the same, invisible rhythm.