In Frederick Wiseman’s masterful documentary La Danse, he provided an X-ray of the ballet that’s part of the Opéra de Paris and it is impossible not to flash back to that work when watching The Paris Opera (L’Opera), a nonfiction film from Swiss director Jean-Stephane Bron that tries to provide an overview of the entire institution of the title, which also puts on operas, concerts and recitals. Like all of Wiseman’s work and some of Bron’s own nonfiction output, which includes features such as Cleveland versus Wall Street and The Blocher Experience, there are no on-camera interviews here. Instead, Bron relies exclusively on editing to shape his mosaic-like story of the people and hard work that together make it possible for the Paris Opera to put on season after season of high-quality and high-art live spectacles.
While not quite as fluid as Wiseman’s best work, there’s a lot to appreciate here — and not only for opera and classical music buffs but also for the more generally culturally curious. The Paris Opera was released in France on April 5 to acclaim and solid early numbers, while Film Movement picked up U.S. rights.
Bron shot most of his film during the 2015-2016 season, which saw some greatly acclaimed premieres and revivals but also more complex issues such as several strikes; the terrorist attack that killed 89 at Bataclan, another performance venue also in Paris; and the troubles surrounding Opera choreographer Benjamin Millepied (also known stateside as Mister Natalie Portman, whom he coached for Black Swan).
Admirably, Bron has decided to let Millepied, arguably the most famous name in his cast, play only a minor role, perhaps also because dance at he Paris Opera was already covered so extensively by Wiseman and Millepied himself was the subject of the 2016 documentary Reset, which chronicles the creation of the choreographer’s first ballet at the Paris Opera. But for people with no background knowledge of his conflicts with at least some of his dancers, there is now too little material in Bron’s documentary to really get a proper sense of what caused all the friction and strange press conferences that were meant to calm the press and general public but instead only created more question marks and confusion.
With dance reduced to a supporting part, there is thus more room for the people involved in the production of operas and concerts. The closest non-Opera patrons have to a protagonist and possible audience substitute — because he too arrives knowing absolutely nothing about the Paris Opera — is Micha Timoshenko, a dashing young Russian bass-baritone. We follow him from his audition for Opera brass to his period at the institution and from speaking no French when he arrives to his increasing ease with the language and his new home. Timoshenko is a sympathetic and occasionally wide-eyed male ingénue who is formidably talented and has a clear eagerness to learn. He’s also a hard worker who is realistic about the quality or lack thereof of his own performances.
One of the film’s most quietly devastating moments occurs right after a recital, when Timoshenko wanders backstage, dazed, sits down on a lonely chair in the middle of the room and looks at the floor while he utters what sounds like a curseword in Russian. As the primus inter pares of the large cast, he is the only who is filmed once as he performs directly to the camera, with all the other performances only seen from the wings or the orchestra or on monitors elsewhere in the Opera buildings. Clearly, Bron is more interested in the work that goes into creating what happens on stage rather than the performances themselves, and the film thankfully never turns into a very highbrow concert film.
Instead of working strictly chronologically, Bron and editor Julie Lena have organized their scenes in clusters that suggest that a lot of different things are going on at any one time, as the various shows require long rehearsal periods for the performers and minute preparation from countless, usually unseen collaborators. They include regulars such as the people of the wardrobe department — seen in a short montage of shots in which tasks such as washing and ironing are as performed in visually suggestive threesomes — as well as on-off helpers such as the men leading a live bull onstage during a performance of Schoenberg’s Moses and Aaron. And though every detail is carefully planned and rehearsed, everything from terrorist attacks elsewhere in the city to the sudden illness of a leading man might potentially derail or alter an evening’s program, sending the people in the administrative offices into a frenzy to try and iron out any potential kinks.
The Paris Opera’s full name is the Opera National de Paris, and they perform in two main venues: the historic Opera Garnier and the modern Opera Bastille. Because Bron only captures behind-the-scenes moments, there is no sense for viewers what is happening where or why and the same goes for the people onscreen, who are never identified except when someone else refers to them by their name. This means it takes quite a lot of time to get to know the protagonists, which also include the establishment’s new director (and former head of Milan’s La Scala) Stephane Lissner, musical director Philippe Jordan and Ursula Naccache, the latter a benefactress of a program for a young, elementary school-age orchestra.
Even at the end of the film, Naccache’s position remains somewhat vague, though Lissner and Jordan’s roles, temperament and exacting sense of excellence, come through loud and clear. The Opera’s director might be welcoming French President François Hollande to a performance one evening but in the next scene chair a meeting about how they can get ticket prices down enough to lower the threshold for potential patrons who might make less in a week than some of the highest-priced tickets cost. Running an institution such as this consists as much of worrying about money and funding as it does about what needs to be put on stage.
If there is finally one take-away from the film, it is perhaps that making effortless-looking art is really anything but.
Production companies: Les Films Pelleas, Bande a Part Films, Orange Studio, L’Opera National de Paris
Writer-director: Jean-Stephane Bron
Producers: Philippe Martin, David Thion
Director of photography: Blaise Harrison
Editor: Julie Lena
Sales: Les Films du Losange