The Dancer Upstairs (2002)

The commentary track for Fox’s DVD of The Dancer Upstairs, by director John Malkovich and star Javier Bardem, begins four minutes into the film. Most filmmakers jump right in to tell you what they think they’ve done. Here the wait is exceedingly appropriate and not a little courteous, as it allows the film’s soundtrack to play along for a bit, that is, Nina Simone’s introduction to her live performance of “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”, playing on a pickup truck radio. “Sometime in your life,” she observes, “You will have occasion to say, ‘What is this thing called time?’ you go to work by the clock, you get your martini in the afternoon by the clock, and you have your coffee in the morning by the clock, and you have to get on a plane at a certain time and arrive at a certain time. And it goes on and on and on.”

“Why does she talk?” asks one of the characters bumping along in the pickup, the night sky blackening the frame around him. The answer is not at all impatient: “She’s preparing to sing.” Just so, Malkovich’s “late” entry onto the audio track (“I’m here, in this little booth,” he specifies) suggests his own appreciation for warming up, for letting viewers absorb and refract what’s in front of them, before the elucidating of intention and the rearranging of memory begin. It’s a form of respect, for the movie and the audience that he assumes can make their own readings.

Notoriously original, Malkovich brings his striking affect to the commentary, just as Bardem brings his usual grace and carefulness. Together, the artists shed welcome light on their thinking about this sophisticated meditation on terrorism, trust, and desire. As you might expect, Malkovich doesn’t deliver anything like a definitive statement of his intentions or his film’s meaning. Instead, he touches on ideas and recollected fragments. He starts, “The only thing I remember about this, really,” says Malkovich, “Is there were a couple days when we were shooting up at the volcano in Ecuador outside of Quito, and we were shooting 21 hour days.” Just at that moment, Simone’s monologue is winding down: “And you say, ‘Where did the time go?'” Indeed.

Adapted from Nicholas Shakespeare’s 1995 novel of the same name, The Dancer Upstairs concerns shifting meanings and temporal fluidity, the ways that violence might punctuate experience, but can’t circumscribe it. Time is forever, and ever elusive. More interested in the process leading to an act than the act, The Dancer Upstairs is brainy, absorbing, and meticulous. It is, above all, never impatient.

Taking the general shape of a political thriller (Malkovich is careful to note the appearance of Costa-Gavras’ State of Siege on a television in his film, extolling its politics and its profound impact on him), as well as an investigation and romance, the film is set in an unnamed “Latin American” country on the verge of revolution or collapse, sometime in “the recent past,” that is, several years following the opening scene. The truck, it turns out, was carrying the eventual leader of a terrorist group, a Maoist professor called Ezequiel, headed to his destiny. When the film picks up again, his guerillas (based on Peru’s Shining Path and its leader, Abimael Guzmán) is assassinating officials and recruiting young children as suicide bombers. The people are frightened, the police are stumped.

Chief investigator is Agustin Rejas (Javier Bardem). Increasingly disinterested in his bourgeois wife Sylvina (Alexandra Lencastre), he’s barely listening as she reads him her book club speech, but also plainly in love with his young daughter Laura (Marie-Anne Berganza). The domestic scenes are small and telling: he does household chores, takes Laura to ballet class, reads Kant (in particular, as Malkovich helpfully points out on the commentary track, The Critique of Pure Reason). Mostly, Agustin works long hours on the job, supported by his young, charismatic, somewhat naïve partner, Sergeant Sucre (Juan Diego Botto) and troubled by occasional racism; part Indian, Agustin was raised in the same village as some of Ezequiel’s current followers, and so he catches local resentment that has nowhere else to go.

He also faces local doubts about his quietness, his seemingly endless patience. When his captain, Merino (Oliver Cotton), challenges him to define his position — “Do you have a feeling about [the case] or are you the Gary Cooper type?” — Rejas resists. He exists quite apart from such categories per se, in his gentle demeanor as much as in his thinking. He can be silent and self-possessed, passionate and elusive.

Agustin’s complexities are reflected in the film’s intricate rhythms and structure. As Malkovich watches a scene that cuts from flashback to present (in the cops’ office) to activities occurring elsewhere, he notes it’s a means to link, across time and space, events and characters that inflect one another, even when they’re unaware of one another. “All of these shots sort of alternate,” Malkovich says, “which was one of the big, I think, difficulties for my actors. It wasn’t a big difficulty for me, because I knew all these places, and I knew sort of what to do. But in this sequence, we’re back and forth in several countries in Europe and South America, and so many locations, all for the same scene.”

Such richness of texture and theme is often most visible in Bardem’s subtle face. It comes into narrative focus when he falls in love with his daughter’s ballet teacher, the vulnerable, mysteriously distressed Yolanda (Italian actor Laura Morante). It’s also available in the fact that the actors (and crew) worked across multiple languages and cultures, to make this film in South America and Europe, and in English (Malkovich confess that he still has moments when he wishes he had made another choice). This gives rise to one of Bardem’s most remarkable observations, a bit of poetry in itself.

Malkovich initiates, when he tries to describe acting in a language not your own: “It’s funny how it changes you, and not at all in a bad way.” And Bardem lays it out:

There’s a point where you are working so much about the dialogue, about the meaning of the words, about the music of the language, that really puts you in contact with something else. Also, what I found extremely difficult for me, is that my whole life, my experiences, which is what I have to work with, as an actor, has been made in Spanish. So far, I haven’t loved or hated, or whatever you want to name it, in English, so those words lack experience for me. It’s like a surgery, you have to put that experience in every word, so when you name it, when you mention those words, they have a personal meaning to you. That’s the point. But also, you play much more. Because you are not stuck with the language in an emotional way, so you are more risky about it, you take more risks.

If you ever wondered how Bardem has become such a respected and frankly astonishing artist, this might be a clue.

Rejas and his team examine a series of crime scenes (and dead dogs, hanging from lampposts and gates, a real-life practice that accomplishes its goal, freaking out the locals, as well as movie viewers). As they work, the connections between art and politics — as spectacles and as audience projections — become increasingly obvious, but also increasingly ambiguous. He observes, “It appears a revolution may be going on, but a revolution that has yet to declare itself in that orientation.” (His Captain rubs his face in frustration: “A strategic equilibrium. Does anyone here know what the fuck that means?”)

What such lack of declaration might mean — for the revolutionaries, for the administration that is all too eager to call in the military and crack down on all “artistic” activities, or for the good-hearted detectives who want to keep (or invent) the peace between these sides — remains uncertain. Without a name, without a face to identify and arrest, Ezequiel can function as an idea, filtering through the citizenry that may or may not trust its government.

The film’s violence is harrowing, fast, and, at least when it happens, incoherent. (It’s up to the cops, and you, to make sense of it; the DVD’s two documentaries, Sundance Channel’s “24 Frame News: Journeys with John Malkovich” and “Revealing The Dancer Upstairs” will help.) For the most part, Malkovich’s commentary only offers up possibilities, not answers. At one point, a small boy enters a bar to be a suicide bomber, at another, schoolgirls in plaid skirts pull weapons from their book bags and shoot up a car full of diplomats (“Most people wouldn’t do a panty shot in a sequence like this,” says Malkovich, “but I’m not one of them, happily”).

At another moment, a chicken is tied to some lit dynamite sticks. Here Malkovich offers, “Now here’s a pretty funny shot. This film was banned in England, for that shot, for a time, then they sort of rescinded that ban. But they felt that chicken showed signs of distress.” Though Malkovich goes on to explain that the explosives were fake and that the chicken is still “living happily somewhere in Ecuador.” “Maybe,” he adds, deadpan, “It’s become a chicken sandwich somewhere too, but not by me.” Aside from Malkovich’s dry humor, what’s striking here is unspoken, but surely available: a critique of the kind of violence that triggers official concern and censorship. Where a fretful chicken is apparently too much to see, the average action film’s multiple explosions, murders, and car wrecks are not.

Commercial uses of violent spectacles have their places, on CNN as much as in Bad Boys II. But such hyperbole also loses sight of how violence does its work, after the blasting and perfectly synced soundtrack. Here the various participants in spectacle — Ezequiel’s group and the administration — invest in a paradoxical faith in the power of seeing and remaining unseen (“A thousand eyes are on you,” reads one spooky poster carried by a boy in the darkened street). And so, the terrorists commit god-awful violence against innocents as well as authorities, while the government commits violence as well, in broad strokes of oppression as well as in increments, in any number of classist and racist subjugations. The official line is that such abuses are efforts to maintain order. But the order always benefits those already in power before anyone else.

The Dancer Upstairs, like its painstakingly self-reflective protagonist (flawlessly portrayed by the incredible Bardem), refuses to pull its many threads all together, to name its outcome or claim explicit triumph. Rejas is instead haunted, by his past and his present, aware that he is unable to save the world, except a little bit. Watching young Laura’s dainty ballet performance, his sad eyes reveal all and not enough. He’s still preparing, endlessly patient because he has to be.