The Dance of Reality: Cannes Review

Nostalgia and narcissism from a cinematic Grand Master.

Cult veteran director Alejandro Jodorowsky revisits his childhood in his first feature in two decades.

A roaring ovation greeted the Cannes premiere of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s first feature in 23 years. But this highly stylized magic-realist memoir of the Chilean-born director’s early life will test the patience of viewers outside the festival bubble.

Best known for his psychedelic 1970s cult movies El Topo and The Magic Mountain, the 84-year-old Jodorowsky pulls out all the stops here – full frontal nudity, sexualized violence, characters urinating on each other, Nazi uniforms and drag queens and dwarves in fancy dress. And while these are all crucial ingredients for a fantastic party, they do not add up to a great film. Box office interest is likely to be spotty, relying on the curiosity value of Jodorowsky’s reputation as a psycho-magical surrealist from a more indulgent era in art-house cinema.

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The Dance of Reality is a rich pageant of nostalgic narcissism laced with New Age mysticism and fortune-cookie wisdom: “someone is dreaming us, embrace the illusion.” At its most inspired, Jodorowsky’s episodic jumble of restaged childhood memories conjurs up a movingly biographical effect akin to Fellini, Bergman, Peter Greenaway or even Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But such moments are few and far between. The film is also numbingly overlong, dramatically shapeless and fatally lacking in humility. The uncharitable may well dismiss it as it an ageing auteur’s latest and probably last act of masturbatory egotism.

Jodorowsky mostly shot the film in his childhood home of Tocopilla in Chile, where his family of bourgeois Ukrainian-Jewish exiles were victims of casual – and occasionally violent - anti-Semitism. His merchant father Jaime was an ultra-macho Stalinist disciplinarian who, according to the director’s previous accounts, beat and raped his wife. These events are only hinted at in The Dance of Reality, in which Jaime is portrayed by Jodorowsky’s middle-aged son Brontis, adding an oddly Freudian frisson to scenes of genital-burning torture that occur in the film’s latter half. His mother, played by Pamela Flores, is a busty Wagnerian hausfrau who speaks only in operatic musical phrases, an amusing conceit that soon becomes tiresome.

Jeremias Herskowits plays the young Alejandro, a sensitive soul scarred by his father’s pathological insistence on manly stoicism at all times. The director himself also makes several cameos, playing guardian angel to his younger self. But The Dance of Reality is more about Jodorowsky Senior than Junior, tracing Jaime’s painful picaresque journey through 1920s Chile, from stern patriarch to political martyr to enlightened family man. In the film’s bizarre middle act, he schemes to become a presidential assassin by going undercover grooming the horse of the hated Chilean dictator Carlos Ibáñez del Campo. But when it comes to pulling the trigger a fateful paralysis intervenes.

Drenched in syrupy carnival music and steeped in theatrical artifice, The Dance of Reality feels at times like a Monty Python comedy without jokes. A curious throwback to a more shamelessly self-indulgent era of personalized art cinema, it is too deliriously bizarre to be truly unwatchable, but far too self-absorbed and stylistically clunky to have universal emotional resonance. The Grand Wizard of midnight movies still has the moves, but it is debatable whether anybody will want to join him on the dance floor.

Production companies: CameraOne, Le Soleil Film

Producers: Michel Seydoux, Moises Cosio, Alejandro Jodorowsky

Cast: Brontis Jodorowsky, Pamela Flores, Jeremias Herskowits, Alejandro Jodorowsky

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Writer: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Cinematographer: Jean-Marie Dreujou

Editor: Maryline Monthieux

Music: Adan Jodorowsky

Sales Company: Pathe International, Paris

Unrated, 130 minutes