Benjamin Millepied, perhaps best known for choreographing the ballet sequences in the film Black Swan (which starred his wife Natalie Portman), made headlines last year when – just over a year into his celebrated run as director of the Paris Opera Ballet – he announced he was leaving the position. At the time he simply cited “personal reasons.” But since then the documentary Reset, co-directed by Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai, has made its way into the world, and those reasons were made less abstract.
Capturing Millepied’s efforts to choreograph a new work to kick off his tenure, while also making the viewer privy to the minutiae of day-to-day operations, the film is a behind-the-scenes essay whose power sneaks up on us. In part that’s due to the cumulative effect of Teurlai’s dazzling camera work – both the film’s lush, rich visual palette and his savvy camera placement, the latter being its own smooth dance between intimate close-ups and impressive wide-shots that take in both the splendor of the stage and the intricacy of the performed dances.
Demaizière and Teurlai follow a familiar template, counting down the days until the big premiere by splicing title cards (“17 days left”) that amp up the tension. It doesn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel, but what they capture is so compelling that the viewer doesn’t mind the familiarity of form. What’s remarkable about the tone and rhythms of the film is how languid (but never boring) it all is as Millepied laments the racial attitudes embedded in the company’s history and structure, the backwards medical attention dancers are given, the obliviousness to modern technology, and the psychologically damaging hierarchy that makes dancers especially competitive and keeps them in a state of fear. That list lets you know that recent suggestions that Millepied left the company because of its cultural racism are, at best, incomplete. The storied, respected culture was fundamentally dysfunctional for what he was trying to accomplish.
But the film isn’t just a list of grievances. There’s a lovely montage of the young dancers speaking briefly about their lives and dreams on the audio track as the screen is filled with them in motion. The running gag of Millepied’s assistant Virginia anxiously asking into her cellphone, “Have you seen Benjamin?” inspires chuckles. The loving, concerned interplay between Millepied and his dancers makes you fall in love with him. And when the camera pulls back to let the viewer take in the full majesty of the rehearsal spaces – some of which look like palatial ballrooms – you almost gasp at the beauty.
Reset captures the human costs – physical injuries, the joys and frustrations of collaborating (the dance Millepied is working on is set to the music of Nico Mulhy, who appears in several energizing scenes), and the oscillation between exasperation and exhilaration. While dance aficionados are likely to swoon hardest over the film, anyone interested in the creative process – or simply swimming in beauty for just under two hours – will find much to love about the film. And Reset makes you care so much about the dancers that, when the film ends with written text about Millepied’s resignation from the company, you can’t help but immediately wonder about the fates of the dancers he’d taken under wing, and who clearly adored him.
Reset opens in theaters across the country this Friday, January 13.