What is so compelling about movie scenes in which a character dances, especially “to” themselves – if not literally alone, functionally alone? How is it different from when we watch each other dance, ‘live’ – for example, at a party? I don’t think the enthralling nature of these scenes is mere voyeurism; nor is watching an actor dance anything like watching them do some other mostly wordless thing (like have sex). The camera is recording something about the nature of characterhood – what looks like a “self” onscreen or onstage – and we who watch are working out something about the conditions of selfhood as it can be registered formally, in the break between acting and dancing. Even if the actor is still acting while dancing, the shift in mode is significant, maybe signifying a kind of freedom or disinhibition that is itself meaningful. In other words, the idea of abandon that dancing seems to show requires a paradigm for characterhood and interiority that sets these scenes apart from their narrative counterparts. Or else: we need a different idea of abandon, at least as it registers in filmed dance.
For me, the first scene to register the weird wonderfulness of such dance scenes was the final scene (interspersed with the closing credits) of Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999), a loose adaptation of Billy Budd. This scene follows like a non-sequitur from one showing the former military officer, Galoup (played by Denis Lavant), fastidiously making his bed. Suddenly, Corona’s “The Rhythm of the Night” (1995) is playing, and we watch as Lavant/Galoup strokes the lit-up mirrored wall beside a dark dance floor, abandoned but for him. He slowly circles, crouches, starts rocking to the beat, circles some more, all the while gazing offscreen and smoking his cigarette. When he finally explodes into a wildly virtuosic dance propelled by whirring arms, we sense the very real, very freeing effect of others’ absence: he’s too ferocious, too focused for others, and is inhabiting, via dance, a kind of desire that isn’t just repressed in the military. It’s a form of desire that is itself part of our relation to characterhood, which is to say part of how characterhood functions as a “vehicle” for selfhood. Every time he stops dancing to stand, smoking and maybe thinking – or just occupying the soldierly pose of self-control – we are reminded that dance-as-desire is something that one (or some ones, some selves) relishes, and can control: one can tease it out of oneself and then stop, and release it once again.
This now-classic performance is easy to find on YouTube; every time I go back to watch it a new snippet turns up at the top of my search results. It has become an almost clichéd reference in the small array of texts about this phenomenon1: scenes in theatrical-release films that allow the camera to linger on an actor dancing their character. In this final scene, Denis is perhaps alluding to predecessors: most obviously, Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1965), and that famous scene in which Marylee Hadley, played by Dorothy Malone, mambos, head flung back, in her bedroom (while her father climbs the stairs and falls to his death). The scene is created not just of the sound of music and her body, first in evening dress, then a corset, then a dressing gown. It is, like the final scene of Beau Travail, full of multiplicative mirrors, desire, solitude, and perhaps most of all wild, unstoppable, destructive will channeled through the riotous pleasures of solo dancing.
Malone/Hadley’s dance is, at least on the surface, all about the object of her desire. Beau Travail’s final scene also leans on the “abstractness” of dance – its refusal to signify anything too specifically. If anything, Lavant/Galoup’s mutinous but hyper-controlled spinning describes film’s own capacity to show us disinhibition and desire generally, and even to gesture towards the generality of desire and its complex relation to objects.
“Clement Rosset puts it very well: every time the emphasis is put on a lack that desire supposedly suffers from as a way of defining its object, ‘the world acquires as its double some other sort of world, in accordance with the following line of argument: there is an object that desire feels the lack of; hence the world does not contain each and every object that exists; there is at least one object missing, the one that desire feels the lack of; hence there exists some other place that contains the key to desire (missing in this world).’”2
Throughout Beau Travail, desire comes into relation to questions of worldmaking as it operates within both the colonial project and the filmmaker’s; this is a grouping of relations that Denis has worked into many films. Much of her film is absorbed in the repetitive and miniscule exchanges of daily routinized life rather than the linear succession of plot points. That doesn’t mean that the dance scene is any less of a release; the film is about desire, after all. But what gets released alongside Galoup’s desire is the tension that builds up throughout this demanding film between ourselves and its objects – that is, the audience’s tension, as a parallel to or echo of Lavant’s.3 Through these echoes and multipliers, the world acquires as its double some other sort of world: desire loses its footing in “this character” and finds another in the dance of disinhibition itself..4
In 2018 Julianne Moore performed a similar final scene in the film Gloria Bell (2018), directed by Sebastian Lélio, who made a prior version of the same film, entitled simply Gloria. Gloria Bell is a regular at a local bar-disco, where she goes to dance most weekends. Whether she makes a friend or picks someone up is secondary: the occasion to dance is the primary appeal of this ritual. The first time we see Gloria dance, it’s with a man she recognizes from her past. A parallel scene has her eyeing the character (played by John Turturro) with whom she will have the love affair that forms the film’s centerpiece. But the pivotal scene of Moore/Gloria dancing is the final one: as in Beau Travail, the film ends with an abrupt cut to an extended, intimate, final view of its protagonist, dancing, more or less alone.
At the scene’s start, Gloria, at the wedding of a friend’s daughter, is being cajoled onto the dance floor from her seat on the sidelines. Before she gets up, she takes off her glasses, and in that single gesture signals world-weary exhaustion, feminine masquerade – a whole slew of things coming to an end (for her). It’s a busy dance floor she’s entering: Moore/Gloria is not Lavant’s Galoup or Malone’s Marylee, doing solo work in front of a mirror or a picture. She begins with some faintly clumsy, half-hearted, familiar disco moves – another nod in the accumulation of details lending the entire film its 1970’s flavor (though it is set in the present). The song that is playing is Gloria, Laura Branigan’s 1982 hit that features the lines
You don’t have to answer
Leave them hangin’ on the line
I think they got your number
I think they got the alias,
That you’ve been livin’ under.
Painfully precise, these lyrics seemingly illustrate the character’s entire trajectory; not just her very recent breakdown, but its root cause in an ineffable split between her narratable life and her inner life. The lyrics seem, out of the blue, to suddenly clarify the film’s depiction of its eponym, and Gloria herself is seen to understand that dooming life-sentence in her slow, considering acclimation to the song’s rhythm. In other words, we watch her hearing these pop lyrics as if she’s really understanding them for the first time, as if they offer an insightful though utterly depressing characterization of her own life. And it’s at this moment that the dancing becomes – as it is in the beginning of Gloria Bell – significant.
Even before she gets to the dance floor, we see Moore/Gloria mouthing the song’s words, gazing blankly while she’s sitting at a table, the meanings starting to crystallize. As she starts dancing, she brings her arms down over her body, in a caress not unlike Lavant’s stroke of the mirrored wall. She gets herself into the groove only gradually, via those conventional moves: arms waving above her head; fists cycling in front of her chest. Nothing is in rhythm until slowly her smile – her trademark social lubricant, which people are always commenting on – helps break her in. And then the lyrics return (Gloria, how’s it going to go down), her eyes close, her arms collapse over her head, and she enters an intensely absorbed, silent inner dialogue with herself.
Ever since arriving at the wedding, fresh from a breakdown in Las Vegas, Gloria has been semi-somnambulist: deeply, psychically hungover. We watch her hear how Branigan’s Gloria works as a ‘script’ for her life, we see the character go inward, we know what she’s remembering, and what she’s hearing. And then we see her breaking a smile, ‘losing herself,’ closing her eyes and catching the rhythm. She starts slowly, knocking with one fist as she circles around herself, until she’s chopping, swirling, arms outstretched: the clichéd sign of childlike, uninhibited joy. Her dance isn’t quite Lavant/Galoup’s, signaling generalized desire in a way that almost takes him out of character (and possibly would have, had the entire film not already presented its characters in this borderline way). This scene shows us ‘Gloria Bell’ refusing to acquiesce to the lyrics’ crystalline description, and it is through that moment of inward reflection that our own relation to her characterhood is thrown into question. Seeing her hearing the song as if it were speaking to her brings us strangely past the diegetic dimension, to where she is evidently considering herself as a character, as Branigan’s “Gloria.”
But most of all it’s the use of dance itself – social dancing, dancing to pop music – that irrupts the end of these films, breaking the relationship built up between characters and viewers. Dance offers form to the idea of characters springing from the narrative prison that the film has built around them: if we think of dance as sometimes liberatory, a means of “letting go,” then for these characters, the dance sequence can appear to loosen the grip of their scripted psychic prisons. In Moore/Gloria’s case, the terms of this would-be release are fairly explicit: she’s digging out of the way that the lyrics to Gloria seem to tell her story, and might in fact be addressing this aging beauty’s core unhappiness (Gloria, don’t you think you’re fallin’? If everybody wants you, why isn’t anybody callin’?). But really this scene is about the powers of narration and description themselves, and what it takes to get away from them. The song is presenting this not merely as the protagonist’s dilemma, but as the dilemma of being a character, generalized: being narratable, representable, the form of a person, characterhood itself is suddenly in question.
Dance, however, is not merely “escape,” but also a form of inscription. (It’s no accident that these are not only the last scenes of the films, but that they end in a flash to credits – to the inscription of the names that wreck the film’s illusion). If anything, dance is precisely the issue of form: since bodies are what we live in and see all the time, watching dance lend bodies “gratuitous” form (without, say, the mediation of an instrument or a text, marble, photograph, paint, etc.) is precisely one of the reasons dance is so pleasurable to watch. On the other hand, social dance – the kind of dance we do at parties, weddings and clubs – lies on the edge of form, as both scenes carefully suggest. When we see Gloria start with those tired moves, or see Galoup hurl himself into an impossibly virtuosic performance, we note the boundary of dance-form as convention, and as whatever we make it, whatever we can improvise (or feel ourselves to be improvising). Characters being filmed as they dance – particularly as they dance “social dance,” but alone – is a way for us to think about our own relationship to characters, and the notions of inscription and formalism that characterhood holds out. What makes us characters and not-characters in our own minds is not only what we watch “Gloria Bell” consider, but what we are suddenly faced with, as she dances herself into a confrontation with her own characterhood.
In 1941, Adorno wrote “The adaptation to machine music necessarily implies a renunciation of one’s feelings.”5 As wrong as he was about jazz, Adorno’s thought implies a fascinating schism for the characters in question – and for the question of characterhood. To posit these dance scenes as representations of the “renunciation of [the character’s] feelings” is to allow dance to come into its own inscriptive power, and to allow us, as viewers, to consume them through the doubling lens through which we should understand characters. Characters are not merely vehicles of projection and identification. As their desires instantiate lack in their world, they invest our world with an echo of that lack as well. They do not merely offer vehicles for our own pre-existing desires, but show us how desire breeds its own lacks, and they do so not merely by acting out that desire, by fitting it into narrative. It is when we see the desire to break free of narrative – to become, however hypothetically, not-characters – that characters become most suggestive for us. Which is odd, because it’s the very function that they serve as characters, to formalize everything about selfhood, in ways we cannot in our daily lives, that should give us pleasure. Our pleasure in their confinement, as formal vehicles, meets ‘their’ desire to break free of such confinement, and we respond gleefully to these flashes of independence, like puppets arguing with their master. Dancing characters, in other words, do not show us a deeper version of themselves, let alone a freer one; they show us the very pleasures of being-character.