Dance Like Nobody’s Dying: Jonathan Glazer’s Strasbourg 1518

Strasbourg 1518, director Jonathan Glazer’s (Sexy Beast, Under the Skin) latest short film, takes its title from the so-called “dancing plague,” an incident of florid mass psychosis which struck the town of Strasbourg in the 16th century. The story goes that sometime in July a young woman began dancing in the city’s streets. Others soon joined. The dancing is said to have lasted for days and led to the involvement of local magistrates and church authorities until the dancers were finally subdued by force and sequestered. While contemporary accounts make no mention of any deaths, later retellings often claim multiple casualties from exhaustion, and the specter of death by compulsive exertion twists and lurches through Glazer’s short alongside its performers.

“Every morning, when I wake up, for ten seconds… I am free,” a nameless narrator says in a recording to which several of the film’s dancers mouth along. What is that freedom? A fragment of something now vanished from the world? A mantra which the dancers follow? Is their manic dancing compulsion or expression? That each dancer is inside points inevitably toward the former interpretation. Walls restrain these people. They smear their bodies along whitewashed sheetrock and slap feebly at impermeable barriers. What emerges from their frantic contortions feels at first like earnest modern dance, but as time wears on and bodies sway and shiver, as wet hair slithers over plaster like something out of Possession’s famous subway breakdown, it takes on a different tone, a sense that all of this is not a performance but a vivisection, the exposure of new and modern organs none of us has yet begun to understand.

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Strasbourg 1518

Frequent Glazer collaborator Mica Levi’s score is a tinny, clawing beat that races along through the dancers’ contortions, not so much fading into the background as the film’s intensity mounts as merging with the film itself, becoming embodied by onscreen light and motion in a way few soundtracks achieve. In one scene a dancer raises and lowers her dress, exposing the mechanical action of her rib cage as she breathes. Bones separate like hands unclenching. They relax back together, a bird’s wings sheathed in fragile skin. The sequence repeats. Later, she will writhe on the floor, underwear a monocolor stripe between trembling legs. Is she showing us the prison of her flesh?

There is a sense, in all this desperate motion, of impending doom. Erosion. Did the dancers of Strasbourg really drop dead at their revel’s end, limbs spasming into lifeless slackness, bodies curled twitching on the paving stones? There is futility here, a struggle to pull meaning or expression or productivity out of nothingness. There is a constricting interior, and the less escapable interior of the body caged within it, and over it all the shadow of the notion that this is us, the entire Western world, engaged in furious, meaningless effort toward nothing at all as our diseased way of life takes its last staggering steps. Its arthouse structure and open-ended symbolism make Strasbourg 1518 a film best approached in a spirit of exploration, not entertainment, but for the committed viewer it is rich with glimpses of a creative spirit both shackled and sublime.

Readers in the US can watch Strasbourg 1518 online for free.

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