Jonathan Glazer’s short about uncontrollable dancing shows how easily the mundane can become terrifying.
It took a few weeks for Glazer’s latest short to hop the pond due to BBC exclusivity. Having taken it in, I have to say it’s not an easy watch. For ten minutes, Strasbourg 1518 throws itself at you visually and aurally. By the end, you feel every bit as exhausted as the dancing, suffering subjects featured.
Trapped in their homes, several individuals dance uncontrollably as if caught in a loop of never-ending time.
The title of the film references a “dancing plague” that struck Strasbourg in 1518 CE. At first one woman started dancing feverishly, and then more joined in till anywhere from 50-400 people across the town where involved. It got so bad that several people were hospitalized, and some disputed accounts say that many people died.
While no definitive theory of what caused the bizarre outbreak is known, it’s thought that it may have been a mass hysteria caused by the harsh conditions of life in the area. With that theory in mind, the parallels to 2020 become fairly obvious.
The Current Plague.
Even being ignorant of the historical parallels, it’s not hard to get at Glazer’s inspiration. Many of the dancers seem to be neurotically miming everyday activities, the most obvious of which is a young woman compulsively washing her hands. Another seems to be feverishly grabbing at items as if on a supermarket shopping spree. One man appears to reenact his old life on the stage, doing a brief dance before incorporating exaggerated bows into his routine and even waiving to an invisible audience. One woman simply puts on and takes off her shawl, as if preparing to go outside.
Shading into Horror.
The actions of the performers morphs from saddening to frightening as the driving soundtrack from frequent collaborator Mica Levi picks up pace. Even without Glazer making the passage of time explicit, there are morbid clues scattered about. The hand washing woman always ends by throwing herself against a spot on the wall; by the end of the piece, that spot is visibly worn down and dirty from her touching it. The dancing man seems to grow more gaunt with each circuit, a strained rictus etched upon his face. I’m surprised we didn’t see any bloody feet – although one rapid series of cuts between two figures, one in bright red, makes one dancer look to be covered in blood.
Much like his other short, The Fall, Glazer also relies on elements of Japanese horror films. The spider-like tendrils of the first woman’s hair as it clings to the wall she slams into again and again remind me of imagery in The Ring. Another slender figure obscured by shadow looks like a traditional Japanese house ghost, and another woman, face hidden in a tangle of hair, skitters across the floor like a figure from The Grudge.
Not Quite Straightforward.
As obvious as the main inspiration for the piece is, Glazer does keep things weird and unaccountable enough to invite lots of interpretations. I can’t say what on Earth the young woman yanking her red dress up to reveal lime green panties, over and over, is supposed to mean. She gets enough camera time that I suppose it must mean something…damned if I know what.
When I say that the film is difficult to watch, it’s not just because of the subject matter feeling like an only slightly more hellish version of the hell we’re currently in. Towards the 8 minute mark Glazer follows Levi’s discordant song with the aforementioned rapid cuts. As they speed up, the bright colors create a strobe effect that made me feel physical pain. Yeah, seizure warnings are a thing, Mr. Glazer.
Dance it Out.
Having covered three of Glazer’s films (all of which have a score by Levi) I really keep coming back to the thought that his films are more of a mood than a story. You certainly get the frenetic despair of the dancing plague coming through loud and clear in Strasbourg 1518.