Director: Patric Chiha
Stars: Gisèle Vienne, Kerstin Daley-Baradel, Sylvain Decloitre
The relentless, propulsive rhythms of ’90s rave music, out of context, are some of the most purely irritating sounds one can encounter (ever had noisy neighbours?). So guttural and invasive, violent and ceaseless. But with rave music context is everything. It’s a genre that is intrinsically connected to not only a specific setting but also a specific state of being. Under the effects of drugs and alcohol and in the company of like-minded voyagers, those same patterns and sounds help open a gateway to a purely euphoric experience. Like being suspended in a perfect moment that keeps perpetuating. Rave culture has its problems, but at its centre is the yearning for an Utopian communal sensation.
In short, the pursuit of bliss.
Patric Chiha’s documentary If It Were Love follows a touring company of dancers under the guidance of choreographer Gisèle Vienne. Her show, Crowd, looks at the movements, energies and politics of the ’90s rave scene through a kind of frosted window in time. The performers move in studied, exacting slow motion, sometimes pitted with momentary judders into real time. Each dancer is in their own world and has their own character, mimicking the trance-like state of the raver, but together they combine in dreamlike formations and intersections.
The slow motion movement also adds a sense of Vienne’s nostalgia. Her dance mimics the tools of cinema; slowing down figures, extending the length of a moment. It is a dance that flows like a memory; expanding and contracting; choosing the moments that remain fiercest. China’s filming of these subjects adds another layer to the performance. He documents a document. A photograph of a photograph.
Watching these bodies move and undulate, one remembers the scene in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin in which Scarlett Johansson’s alien female is corralled into a club by a gaggle of young women. She moves among them but isn’t one of them and, through her perception, we see clubbing through the eyes of one unfamiliar with its meaning. Vienne’s dance and Chiha’s capturing of it trigger a similar sense of unlearning. Of seeing things we know and can define – joy, dance, arousal, flirting – viewed outside of the usual frames of reference. The plain black backdrop and lighting – stark white light or midnight blue – only further this othering. It becomes a study in physical communication.
At other times, we find the dancers on an earthen floor as though outside, collapsed and exhausted and, in a particularly vivid moment, one of the women appears to be gnawing on the prone body of one of her kin. The rave has become a kind of horror movie, echoed elsewhere in a sequence which explores a disruption of the euphoric flow when two of the men square up for a fight. An animalistic display of aggression that shows how gossamer-thin the bubble of bliss can be.
Chiha also affords us backstage glances. We get to know a little of the dancers themselves and the miniature soap operas of their lives. Their relationships and romances. Their own thoughts on character. These intervals are pleasing additions and welcome, but If It Were Love is most compelling when it gets as lost in the act of performance as the dancers themselves. At its purest it is a celebration of light falling on bodies and the grace, aggression and exaltation of those bodies. It’s a paean to togetherness, to youth, to the exciting energies that ricochet when you are in a crowd.
The pandemic has made us all feel to separated. Intentionally or not, If It Were Love might make even the most introverted viewer feel misty eyed for busy spaces. For the throng and hubbub of the rave or the club or the gig. For the heat, thrill and potentiality of communing as strangers.