Dancing in the Rain

09/09/2013

Yugoslavia / 1961 / Slovenian

Directed by Boštjan Hladnik

With Duša Počkaj, Miha Baloh, Rado Nakrst

Still from 'Dancing in the Rain'Peter, an elementary school art teacher, lives on a drab bed, surrounded by easels, paintings, and cigarette butts. He sometimes shares his space with Maruša, a stage actress who is several years his senior. The two seem eager to one day be rid of one another, and seem just as unable to let one another go. It is around the borders of this sad, charcoal sketch that Dancing in the Rain chews, wending its termite-circles to the center, til it digs deep within the insecurities and longing of its impossibly isolated characters. Each of them is a trench in which a dream of excitement and fulfillment in the city has gone to die. Hladnik’s film, more than a bravado litany of trick and subjective cinematography, more than an eccentric brooder, is an omnivorous autopsy of those dreams, one that double-exposes them with the concrete, with what is remembered, to discern their true shapes.

A sultry prostitute named Magda decries Peter as an “animal” early one morning as he kicks her out of his room. But, the woman he trashes is in turn treasured by his batty landlord, Anton, who harbors a fixation with her, and secretly despises Peter for having used her. Women, in the film, aren’t merely Madonnas to the men around them, they are cobwebbed relics. They could be slumped over, dead, and it would not make any difference. Old, sad Anton puts more energy into hating Peter than to worshiping from a distance the woman with whom he is obsessed. Maruša, meanwhile, has an admirer in the awkward, young prompter in the theatre where she works. He hovers close to her, another unknown enemy of the brash, boorish Peter.

Maruša seems to have gotten by for so many years on the basis of her cupie-doll features and  red hair. At least that’s how Peter would have it, and he has no problem telling her that, over and over. Meanwhile, she wields his youth against him, telling him he’s on the fast-track to dereliction. These squalid exchanges continue endlessly, over little pitchers of wine in a cheap restaurant. Only when they are apart do things thaw between them; alone at the table, he apologizes to her, before realizing she has vanished. She, in turn, is secretly devastated by his abuse. Of course sometimes their eyes connect lovingly over whiskey glasses, but then things deteriorate to the usual, self-hating attacks. “Day after day we invent torments for each other,” he admits in one of his less-obtuse moments.

Still from 'Dancing in the Rain'The pair bait each other to run away, each with the comforting knowledge that the other is trapped in place. Maruša finds distraction in tempting her young acolyte onward, appearing more and more goddess-like and mute, evasive to his slithering fingertips. And then there’s Peter, who seems too single-minded, even in his soused ruminations, to be able to be distracted. But his solace comes from his dreams, ever-increasing in their death-imagery, which have him pursuing the perfect shape of a woman behind a curtain, hand cupped to the air. Perhaps she is a faceless amalgam of the women in his life, but infinitely desirable because she is yet unsullied by his indelicate mitts.

All of the characters share in their unenviable poverty, their indifference, their yearning that, far from being suffered with subtlety, gets shouted into echoless corridors and windowless rooms. In the young man who watches her day and night, Maruša experiences a reconstitution of the shallow adulation she probably received from theatre audiences when she was young. This prompter doesn’t care about her age, baggage or lifestyle. The man she hangs onto, meanwhile, despises every last detail about her. Peter is a hardened stump of self-defeating violence, Maruša the ultimate portrayal of grace eaten away from within by insecurity. His thorniness and her hollowness compliment each other, fit together in a horrible complacency.

Any analysis of the film would be hard-pressed (or word-pressed, as it were) to touch upon all that is going on with it. This is not due to the complexity of Dancing in the Rain (complex though it is), so much as its diversity, its rag-rug of interlaced strands that are uneven and mismatched, and therefore all the more inextricable from one another. This crummy tapestry invites a surface sampling, and it is all too easy to become swept beneath its different and simultaneous atmospheres; its jump-cuts; its flesh collages; its incredible soundtrack that bottoms out into a sewer, balloons grossly or subsumes the image altogether – and that stop-start rain, more maddening and numbing than any noise in existence.

Indeed, one could do a lot of writing, a lot of thinking, about these elements alone. And they are far more exciting than the depressing narrative itself. The visual tangents beckon, while the inimitable sound-stage ambiance is nearly constant, even in location settings. The film avoids deploying one method, but rather is an accretion of methods. Being a progenitor of clichés (like the 1960 Czech film The White Dove), it suffers none of the urge to treat the banalities of the future with any delicacy. It acts as the darkened parlor in which they crowd together, and lets them play out until they become unbearable.

Still from 'Dancing in the Rain'In spite of, or perhaps by virtue of, its squarish construction – literally, it consists of four characters – Dancing in the Rain should be recognized as a seminal poem of city life, the way that things occur externally with a sort of automatic, clockwork inherency, making the inner monologue of each person surrounded by it seem all the more subjective, deranged even. The city outside is far from vapid or stagnant; it is lively, byzantine, and soot-laden. But each person has burrowed into an unforgiving personal reality, cocooned into a position that makes them, perversely, more vulnerable to the whims of others than if they had the freedom to dash through the fields.

Peter, in his dreams, is as trapped as he is in his real life, but somehow more aware of it. He runs down the street, surrounded on both sides by pallbearers holding white coffins that whoosh by, and when he reaches the strange, silhouetted woman and climbs through her window, he finds himself once again at the other end of the street. The dream-street is endless, though – it flows to his bedroom and continues past it, through the wall and, some way, winding about the city, leads back again. Each of the principle characters inhabits an imaginary world overlaid onto the grimy substance around them. There is Peter, with his chasing desire; Maruša, whose rural memories challenge her to break away; the landlord, whose fantasies of revenge and fulfillment lead to numerous false plot devices; the prompter, whose every moment spent with or pursuing the woman of his obsession is a well-rehearsed play, entirely independent of her.

Still from 'Dancing in the Rain'The blandly pure, infatuated teenage couple with oddly similar faces (and are accompanied by plucks of a tinny Spanish guitar) go largely unseen by the characters, but offer a consistently hilarious and ominous presence to nearly every scene. Are they apparitions of a long-gone, uncomplicated love? Or do they represent something more sinister, a mindless foil underlying the characters’ tortured relations? The soundtrack is cruder and more blatant. As if in reply to Magda the prostitute’s accusation against Peter at the beginning of the film, he and Maruša’s nocturnal argument is drowned out by a street of barking dogs. People’s faces linger on camera beyond usefulness, long after all expression has been wrung from them.

Some of the insane little details – like the dismembered dolls strewn through the alleyway where Peter takes shelter – take on monstrous proportions, while others – such as the child intently spreading shaving cream all over his distracted father’s shoe – are content to inhabit the crevices. All in all it’s a busy little world, the usual Slavic eye for decay pock-marked with a subterranean sensibility that seems quite Czech. The first image in the film is a fire hydrant being opened and inundating the sidewalk, with the evening shopping crowd stepping blithely over the water. All the people, whether pasted up on walls or passing in the street, wear a hard, neon-lit semblance, and rush from the incessant rain. Only the teenage couple actually look at one another, and their eyes seem deadened by thoughts of the future.

Still from 'Dancing in the Rain'

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