‘How are you?” are the first audible words in this ferocious and headbuttingly confrontational short film from Jonathan Glazer: the answer can only be … not well. But strangely much better for this cathartic, declamatory spasm of protest, a dance piece for individual performers devised by Glazer in collaboration with Artangel and Sadler’s Wells. It takes place in separate eerily unfurnished, dimly lit, socially distanced rooms and is choreographed to an overwhelmingly propulsive electronic score by Mica Levi, which left me jittery afterwards, like Chaplin coming off the production line in Modern Times.
Glazer’s next full-length film is reportedly to be an adaptation of Martin Amis’s holocaust novel The Zone of Interest, but while this has been developing, he has been hitting us with short films for the BBC. The first was last year’s The Fall, an ambiguous nightmare of mob-rule execution or folk-horror ritual, and now there is this 10-minute convulsion of long-suppressed energy, Strasbourg 1518, disparately filmed during the Covid lockdown. It is reputedly inspired by the mass-hysteria outbreak of dancing in Strasbourg that year, one of the many such bizarre instances in Europe in the middle ages and early modern period, in which the collective unconscious of communities erupted in a psycho-bacchanal of protest against disease, misery and oppression. This film could as well be called UK 2020 or The World 2020. As an artefact, it brilliantly spoke to my own feelings about the lockdown, with dance being both symptom and cure, both deterioration and therapy, both constriction and freedom. Many people have been exercising in lockdown in precisely this desperate, ambiguous way.
The dancers’ bodies lurch and lunge and swivel in their confined spaces, leaping and collapsing, clenching and undulating. One woman periodically lopes over to what looks like a barrel or butt of water (more suitable for a barnyard than a 21st-century interior, and perhaps it’s the one literal allusion to the world of its title) and washes her hands. A very Covid moment. Other dancers whirl in the same fierce way, periodically clashing against the wall like Westworld robots. There is little or nothing else to be seen in the frame but the dancers themselves, nothing but the bare room, though in one shot, the curtain is drawn back slightly, revealing what looks like a typically British urban street outside – maybe London – and the effect is very dreamlike. Eventually the editing quickens and becomes almost stroboscopic. And all the while Levi’s amazing score is sawing and pummelling at your head.
You might compare Strasbourg 1518 to other movies on the mass-dysfunctional theme, such as Carol Morley’s The Falling (about collective fainting fits in a 60s British girls’ school) or Ken Russell’s legendary The Devils (about demonic possession approximately a century after the Strasbourg incident); but if it were not for the title, this subject matter might not in fact be obvious. The dancers here are isolated; the Strasbourg dancers were communal. Yet that might be Glazer’s point – perhaps we are all communal now in our atomised way, due to social media and Twitter, that perpetually seething arena of volatile dispute, where Strasbourg dances of memes and quarrels and jokes can happen out of nowhere, with some people suddenly trending for no other reason than people are asking why they are trending.
Of course, the other touchstone is the Powell and Pressburger classic The Red Shoes, inspired by the Andersen story about the little girl condemned to dance forever wearing the magic red shoes. Is that how we feel in our eternal, inner dance of rage against the Covid lockdown? Perhaps – and it’s a feeling touched on here. Yet Covid or not, mass hysteria or not, we are all condemned to wear the red shoes, all condemned to dance (quickly or slowly) to the end of our days. There’s a vivid flare of pure intensity to this film.
• Strasbourg 1518 is available on BBC iPlayer.
Source: The Guardian