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Strictly Come Dancing

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Parisa Taghizadeh/The BFI London Film Festival; right, The BFI London Film Festival

MOVIE REVIEW
Lovers Rock/If It Were Love (2020)

The power of the body to express emotion is something we normally take a little for granted. In these upsetting lockdown days, it’s becoming ever more valuable. Groups of people dancing together? It’s so unthinkable at the moment as to be pornographic. “Lovers Rock,” one of Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe” ensemble, is the fictional story of a house party in 1980s West London. “If It Were Love” is a documentary by Patric Chiha about a Swiss modern dance ensemble creating a piece, under the choreography of Gisele Vienne, about a 1990s rave. The two are not quite halves of the same coin, but they are interested more in music and movement than stereotypical plot, and as a film festival double bill they work extremely well together.

“If It Were Love” is explicitly about how dancers use only their bodies to express different moves and feelings as they move through a piece. Mr. Chiha never shows the final piece (presumably for copyright reasons), but we are alongside dancers from the troupe through various rehearsals as they work together to create different tones, or as they discuss their own motivations – or, most interestingly, that of other dancers – which they keep in mind as they work onstage.

“Lovers Rock,” which was co-written by. Mr McQueen and Courttia Newland (full disclosure: he and I have mutual friends) is built around a house party to celebrate Cynthia (Ellis George)’s 17th birthday. A young woman named Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and her friend Patty (Shaniqua Okwok) attend despite knowing no one else there. Martha hits it off with Franklyn (Micheal Ward) while Cynthia comes under the attention of Bammy (Daniel Francis-Swaby). This is very thin plot on which to hang the dancing, though. How Martha and Franklyn move through the party, toward or away from each other, using dance instead of talk is the thread the film hangs on. The music is much more the focus. There’s a wonderful sequence where, when a song (“Silly Games” by Janet Kay) stops on the turntable, it’s taken up by the room and sung by everyone there as they continue dancing. Later the mood turns darker, not least by what Martha discovers in the garden, and there are a few songs where only the men are dancing, but the overall feeling is one of lightness and potential.

The feeling of potential is what the dancers in Ms. Vienne’s troupe are trying to capture in “If It Were Love,” too. They are from all over Europe, but working in French (Ms. Vienne is French-Austrian and the troupe’s base appears to be in Switzerland while they work primarily in Germany) to try to capture a feeling of slow-motion “hypersensuality” that is the reason people go to clubs. Their dancing involves a lot less physical contact, although the stage is covered with dirt, and by the end so are most of the dancers. Some of them are boldly pulling emotional upheaval they are currently experiencing into the dance. Others have developed entire fictional backstories and are focused on acting out that part. In other words, some are taking things extremely seriously, and others not so much, but it all takes more work than you’d think. How it all comes together is the main thing but the steps of the process pulling everyone together is the film’s focus. It is not always completely successful: The unexplained weirdness of the opening credit sequence is by far the most visually arresting part of the film, and it would have been nice to circle back to that a little more.

“Lovers Rock,” while being a scripted film, almost has less plot. It just simply shows an evening where almost everyone has nothing but a good time. Most of the action takes place in the one room of the house – where the furniture has been removed for the dancing (the sofa, carefully covered in plastic, is out in the garden) and tins of Red Stripe sell for a pound. You absolutely get the feeling Mr. McQueen watched parties like this one through the bannisters when he was supposed to be in bed. You can absolutely feel the ebb and flow of the evening and the relentless potential for anything to happen, good or bad. Whether or not Martha and Franklyn will be able to properly find a way to connect with each other is more than enough to keep you watching.

Both films are a bold reminder of what is missing in a lot of our lives right now, and how much work goes into having a good time.

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