'Le Grand Bal': Film Review | Cannes 2018

LE GRAND BAL Still 1 -Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Pyramide
Strictly French Ballroom.

French director Laetitia Carton's documentary, which premiered in Cannes as part of the Cinema de la plage section, explores an annual dance event in France.

In the middle of the summer, in an idyllic countryside location about 165 miles south of Paris, several thousand people come together to dance. This extraordinary annual event is chronicled in the documentary Le Grand Bal from writer-director Laetitia Carton. Mixing observational elements with personal ruminations in voiceover about the filmmaker’s own relationship with and observations about dance, this is at once sprawling and intimate, a portrait of a very specific event and an exploration of dancing in both individual and more general terms. It premiered as the only contemporary title in Cannes’ Cinema de la plage section this year, where it was followed by — what else? — dancing in the sand and under the Cote d’Azur moonlight. It should interest dance events and non-fiction showcases alike.

The “Grand Ball” of the title is a folk-dance festival that takes place every year in Gennetines, not far from Moulins, in central France. It lasts over a week and sees people from all walks of life and all corners of France and beyond converge on a gigantic estate where eight or nine different wooden dance floors are installed, under marquees, and where different bands play music for 90-minute stretches to allow people to give themselves over to different types of dancing. The actual dancing lasts from about nine in the evening until at least three in the morning, though workshops start every day right after breakfast for those interested in learning new dances they can then try out at night. It’s practically a non-stop dance extravaganza that lasts almost 200 hours.   

Carton’s film starts with a hypnotic and prolonged tracking shot down the sinuous roads of the Allier region en route to the Grand Bal in Gennetines, which almost suggests that cars driving there have to also twirl and dance down the winding country roads before the revelers get to their destination. The prolonged opening, which takes up some 10 minutes in total, then throws viewers straight into a frenetic night-time dance to a Celtic-sounding song, with most of the choreography happening on the dance floor but the music also spilling out from underneath the marquee and into the dark of night, where people sit and stand around, chat and drink — and where most bodies can’t help but move along to the music as well. It’s a compact and tingling package, enticingly cut together by Rodolphe Molla, that suggests simultaneously something about the location and the reason all the people gather there every summer: They can’t help themselves whenever the music starts playing.

Carton doesn’t follow anyone in particular at the ball, instead following small clusters of people for a sequence or two, to illustrate the things that happen there over the course of the week. Some people help set up breakfast or lunch, others brush their teeth or buy or sell vouchers for food and drink. Quite a few participate in the workshops on offer, often by charmingly accented foreigners teaching the largely French-speaking dance lovers a new choreography from places like Italy or Greece. And almost as many head down to the patchwork of colorful tents set up at nearby properties to try and catch some sleep between events, which would be exhausting enough without the fact that most get only a couple of hours a sleep at night for seven straight days.

“Dancing is about listening to your body’s whispers,” the director says in one of her semi-poetic voiceovers, adding, when talking about dance partners, that it is all about “listening to the other and become one with the other." Most of the dances are traditional ones, such as waltzes, mazurkas or the bourree, and they often require a partner. But even if the dances of choice might be quite conservative, the event is clearly taking place in the 21st century, with girls chatting about the fact they sometimes dance with their girlfriends, so they need to learn how to lead — and that that experience, in turn, comes in handy when some of the men ask the ladies to lead instead of them. 

Working with four credited cinematographers, including the director herself, the film finds its visual groove in a loose style that has an eye for spatial relations and coordinated body movements as well as the individual experience within larger groups, such as in a lovingly held shot of a couple nearly standing still, in each other’s arms, as people around them continue to dance. Because there is not one protagonist to follow or even a narrative throughline beyond the weeklong event itself, the rhythm starts to sag a little and scenes become repetitive in the last 40 or so minutes. Some serious pruning would probably improve the film’s commercial prospects. But there’s no denying this is still an accomplished and fascinating piece of work that explores both a specific event and a human activity far too often only practiced or looked at without trying to penetrate its deeper mysteries. 

Production company: Sanosi Productions
Writer-director: Laetitia Carton
Producer: Jean-Marie Gigon
Directors of photography: Karine Aulnette, Prisca Bourgoin, Laetitia Carton, Laurent Coltelloni 
Editor: Rodolphe Molla
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cinema de la plage)
Sales: Pyramide International

In French, English
99 minutes