Patric Chiha's dance doc If It Were Love presents as a mystery, sensual and glistening, from the off. In a prologue, we watch as a balding, bespectacled middle-aged man who physically resembles Phil Collins uses a spray tank to hose down a succession of fully-dressed twentysomething hipsters, as if they'd just been exposed to radiation or passed through a cloud of nits. Why?, we wonder. This is not un film de pandemic: it took its festival bow, to considerable acclaim, in Berlin this time last year, before Europe went into lockdown. Only as the title appears is it revealed that the spray is greasepaint of a form; that those being sprayed are performers preparing for a dance piece that concerns dance itself. This is the French choreographer Gisèle Vienne's Crowd, which plots the movements of ravegoers across a muddy, litter-strewn stage that stands in for a field, and requires its performers to look as sweaty and mussed-up as ravers generally do while standing in a field in the early hours. (Hence Phil and his mysterious spray tank.) Watching the genesis of this piece - the rehearsals, intercut with performances on various stages across Europe - it becomes clear that what Vienne and Chiha are getting at are the joys of communality, of losing yourself in both the crowd and the music. We've all felt those. But have we ever needed to feel them more? Back in Berlin last February, it might merely have looked like the film's collaborators had succeeded in making art out of your common-or-garden Friday night. A year on, and our memories of such nights may be beginning to recede a little. Chiha's film squirts juice on them, and sets about polishing them up.
That If It Were Love has assumed an extra poignancy in the twelve months between its debut and this week's streaming release would appear unarguable. That may be down to the fact that, for much of its duration, we're watching bodies caught in suspension, lives lived in slow motion - a state of being that speaks to the post-Covid condition, where we often feel as though we're labouring through endless rehearsals for a performance that cannot safely go on. "I just want to feel close to someone," one dancer says of the character he's playing. "[To feel] the warmth of their skin, their smell." That newly familiar tension - getting close enough to others to feel something, but not so close you endanger anybody - was there in Vienne's original work. You'd think you could arrive at a contemporary dance piece about rave culture just by nudging bodies onto a stage, cranking up the Prodigy and strobe lights, and inviting everyone to cut loose. Vienne's dancers, however, are seen being very precisely guided through a series of almost robotically choreographed moves, the better to highlight how these clubbers approach and bounce off one another. From the substantial extracts Chiha here enters onto the public record, Crowd's principal interest lies in what our old friends Re-Flex dubbed the politics of dancing, what happens when bodies intersect in an enclosed space. (One character is explicitly identified as a Nazi.) Chiha has seized upon it as an opportunity to film a process of physical attraction and repulsion that strikes the eye as at once bruising and ecstatic, that contains both vast possibility (we've all known nights like it, to some degree) and the strong prospect of aggro. To quote that old hellraiser Chuck Berry, whose recordings have made people get up and bust a move for the better part of a century now: you never can tell.
As it progresses, it becomes apparent that the film is reaching for yet another, self-reflexive level of meaning. Between the studio work, we get profiles of individual dancers, caught in unusually candid backstage discussions about what they got up to (and with whom) the previous night. These scenes are a study in body language rather than choreography; they run a touch long, but they're notable for what they reveal about the subjects' relationships, how comfortable they truly are around one another. These dancers aren't wind-up toys, much as they sometimes resemble them on stage, but jittery, ardent, pulsing flesh-and-blood, negotiating their own internal tensions offstage - who they fancy, who they've slept with, who they've rejected; Vienne's hands-on direction massages these tensions back into the piece. Granted, this opens a door to that self-absorption performers often display when they're working on or through a thing, but Chiha's framing pulls us deep into the space between these people, allowing us to feel out what it represents, and to observe, at uncommonly close quarters, how even the relatively callow lived experience of millennial hoofers can be transformed into striking art. A lot of dance docs - most prominently 2011's Pina, Wim Wenders' 3D tribute to La Bausch - have filmed that space, but they've tended to do so from the outside: they show us dance as it's observed from the front-of-house, as spectacle. By insinuating himself into the lives of Vienne and her troupers, Chiha has gathered up all kinds of insight as to how one might fill that space, and what's really going on within it - the energy, the electricity. His film makes modern dance tactile, palpable, graspable; at each turn, it commits to seeking out the feeling behind every gesture. By the end of these supremely lithe 82 minutes, you could put your finger on it, if you were lucky.
If It Were Love streams from tomorrow via MUBI UK.