The Sea Inside of Rain

A review of Olivia Rochette and Gerard-Jan Claes’s Documentary Rain


A patter of applause circled in the thinly populated auditorium. The darkness lifted and we all readjusted in our seats, roosting ourselves up from the serene somnambulant trance of movie watching. We waited for the post-film screening Q & A of Rain, a documentary on the setting of Anne Teresa DeKeersmaeker’s piece of the same name, to begin.

Two thin, darkly dressed wisps, the film’s directors, Olivia Rochette and Gerard-Jan Claes, drifted up to the makeshift stage that consisted of a lanky and solitary black pole—a microphone, standing like an emaciated man—and two amply commercialized blue manners blazoned with the festival’s logo “LA Film Fest” and its sponsor, “DirectTV.”

A hefty woman introduced the gaunt pair to the mic, while she fielded the room for questions…

“Now this might seem like a silly question, but this is a dance movie. Why didn’t you show us the dancing?!” exclaimed one woman, clearly irritated that this self-proclaimed “dance movie” had not made good on its promise.

The pointed question, aimed at the directors, ruffled the sleepy condensation, hovering over the crowd and took the filmmakers aback. The pleasant mist that had layered over us from this dreamlike film vanished into thin air.

For all intensive purposes, Rain is a “dance movie.” Its subject is dance—the setting of a choreographic piece on the Ballet de l’Opéra national de Paris. Its “characters,” the ballerinas of the Paris ballet, are “dancers.” And its “story” is a dance specific one—the missteps and manipulations involved in putting on such a monumental piece of choreography. But unlike many a “dance film,” we aren’t immediately thrown into the studio, or hurled onto the stage. Instead we’re inducted by a pale, gray-blue sky that gradually morphs from rainy clouds into “the dancing” we expect: the tryouts, the turns, the arabesques. Monet’s “Impression Sunrise” moves into Degas’ “Four Dancers.” Mist gives way to movement.

But “dance” doesn’t dissolve in this movie, as the disappointed woman in the crowd suggested, nor is it the aggregate left after rainfall’s dissolution. In this film, the depiction of the process of dance, itself, is the vehicle by which we are given to know the dance and attempt to understand the dancer’s internal experience. It is our glimpse into an interior world of artistry that is hardly ever shown, but perpetually glamorized.

But this insertion of our selves into the dance world is by no means easy. Like being inducted into a new community the longing to belong is accompanied by second guesses, awkwardness, discomfort—what is going on? Should I be here?

The sense that we’re outsiders invading an off limits area is felt every time we’re confronted with a set of green double-doors. They are the forbidding gateway to the studio. The doors’ two circular windows—owl eyes—gaze at us. They are ominously reminiscent of the hollowed out, glass eyeballs of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, who stared from his billboard with blank fixation over Baz Luhrmann’s rendition of Gatsby’s Valley of Ashes. Their vacuity challenges us to peer through. Music tinkles within, but dare we peek? The lure to look is great, but also foreboding. So the camera, like the viewer, sits uncomfortably in the hallway, in hesitation. Voyeurism’s urgency to gawk and gander is almost undercut by our fear to peer.

Fortunately, Rochette and Claes finally give us a look. But if our view was obscured before, the camera intensively focuses it now. Like a fly on the wall, the camera hangs at mid-level, framing the dancers’ upper bodies, while maintaining a respectable distance. But boundaries are crossed; glimpses become intense stares that zone in on the wiggle of every toe, the crease of every elbow, the hollow socket of every collar bone, particularly those of a young and fair corps de ballet member, otherwise anonymous, who becomes the film’s accidental star.

The innocuous blonde becomes both a focal point and bone of contention for the prima ballerina, who senses her star power drained by the camera’s draw to this lesser dancer. Her fury is parroted on tape-recorded phone calls made by the choreographer to her assistants. This gossip is overlaid on shadows lurking in the halls outside the dance studio, lest the truth be openly documented.

Like that of the prima ballerina, Rain incites a kind of jealousy within us. The film inspires us with a powerful desire to know the dancing body. But by forbidding us entrance, it also reminds us that it is an interior that can never be fully understood through sight alone. Just as the camera continually refuses to allow us insight into the dance’s full picture, our eyes alone are insufficient to intake this choreographic experience in full.

We do not “see” the dance precisely because Rain attempts to capture the insides of the dancers. Rochette and Claes tease out these inner happenings by capturing the young dancer wiping the sweat from her brow when she fumbles, or noticing the reddish color that rises in her cheeks when she feels the camera’s watchful eye upon her. Blush and sweat, much like dance, read as a kind of sign language—subtle, but telling ciphers of the dancer’s discomfort and frustration, as well as her determination to learn this complex piece of choreography. Rochette and Claes concentrate upon her physical minutiae in order to capture the essence of dance, itself.

In Rain’s final scene, precise movement disbands into pure (e)motion. Under extreme close ups, particular steps devolve into ripples of movement. Specific patterns swish into undiluted waves. And articulations of the body morph into repeated undulation. This rush transforms into absolute energy, evoking the inner swells of emotion itself—the very highs and lows that seize the young dancer with ecstatic joy when she finally performs upon the stage. Through this fluid vision we ultimately realize that Rain is not a sight to be seen, but a body of water in which to be immersed.