A body twirls in grace and convulses progressively towards a visible exhaustion. There's a barrel filled with water in the mise-en-scène, and the dancer stoops down to wash her hands occasionally in a compulsive choreography of urge and habit. Another body puts on and takes off her jacket in a seamless continuity, rendering the impetus of the cyclical motion ambiguous. Both acts take place indoors, the occupying bodies lit by natural light, whose intermittent absence reveals the temporal progression of the routines through consecutive days and nights; we soon realise that the bodies have not rested.
The title of this short film by Jonathan Glazer, Strasbourg 1518 (shot during the COVID lockdown), refers to an epidemic of choreomania in the eponymous region and year, when (as the story goes) a woman started dancing without a plausible cause on the street, resulting in a snowball effect where the mania percolated into other bodies to the extent that the exhaustion and allied injuries from the relentless exertion of the senses claimed around 400 bodies in death cumulatively. Eluding scientific explanations, such fits of involuntary dancing in different parts of Europe around this time issued from physical assemblies of bodies that got infected by each other; the intangible contagion travelled through physical hosts, resulting in a collective exit from the body proper. In the film, the dancing bodies are then intimately connected in their atomised kinship of moving limbs that protest against containment in concrete. There's a temporal and spatial multiplication of presence; single body, plural selves.
The first words in the film are "How are you?" — now a tired address in its overt assertion of polite (and often obligatory) enquiry. How is the body, really?
Modern medicine isolates the symptom of a disease and individuates the patient, where the introduction of a drug in the body effects a relief of the concerned ailment. So, unlike the collective embodiment of the bacchanal spirit in 1518, the dance in Glazer's film is—in departure from a nostalgia of community action—a response to the weight of domestic inertia induced by the anxiety around protection from the virus; it dismantles a familiar arsenal of movements, and navigates a shrinking space through physical contortions. The dancer's body is a narcissistic body, and its assertions in motion become a refusal of its status as inessential during a global pandemic; a refusal of this invalidation is exercised through a manic occupation of the available space. This leads to a virtual contamination of spaces in the film, creating an expanded architectural infrastructure through camera frames where all the bodies seem to respond to each other's triggers; an eruption in each spatial fixture calls for the body to consume it in its entirety. Far from an adaptation to the contingencies of the virus, it is a disruptive solidarity of precarious bodies.
A similar sensorial alertness manifests in another film made during the lockdown—Mati Diop's In My Room—where the director shoots the buildings around her studio/residence and the occupying bodies for months, capturing them hibernating in their cells. The vignettes, framed by that of the windows that serve as peepholes to Diop's voyeur, are banal, tender and incomplete; somebody opens the window for a smoke, a hand stretches itself out towards the ceiling, a couple is kissing. The film plays out the audio recordings that Diop made of her grandmother, Maji, prior to her demise while placing her reflections on her bygone life, regrets and humorous chidings against the architectural landscape of her studio and its vicinity in Paris. There is a consistent focus in the film on the glow and glare of the sun on shiny apartment windows, capturing their shimmering luminescence quietly as Maji's narration and strains of the opera La Traviata tie up the aural-scape. The glare later concentrates in a rhinestone on a Miu Miu dress, which Diop wears and lip-syncs to the said opera in; the light is leaking.
Maji is suffering from memory loss, and needs the aid of a nurse. Passing through disability, she refuses adequate assistance because she is at peace in her space and wants to stay by the familiar in her twilight years. The lockdown has induced such feelings of paranoia and compulsive actions in us; there's an illness at large and we are having to reorient our bodies to a chronic situation. Even if there's a return to a healthy body and the familiar, it will still be different from the past that was due to the passage of the foreign. In Diop's film, we are privy to an intimate conversation, where Maji is an embodied archive of a past when the War was a routine for school-going children and the cinema a welcome respite. Maji aspired to be an actress in her prime, and a scene in the film shows her as a photographic trace, smiling into the camera's eye with a cigarette between her fingers. In the permeability of memories and their prosthetic exhumation as an audio track, the grandmother registers as an absent presence.
Intimacy also becomes a spectacle of distance; the absence of any phenomenological signifiers of the looming disease is used to draw attention to the circumstantial thrust of the narrative—Maji's spectral persistence in the architectural habitat of Diop's Paris. Maji harbours a mistrust for change (she is agitated at the suggestion that she move to a house for the elderly), and her repetitive pleas for solitude and peace become an iterative ellipsis as the camera teases an intimacy between other bodies from a distance. Space in this film is thus both shared and alienated; in perpetual formal arrest, the buildings play with shadow and light (both natural and neon), lending the camera a sense of extended stillness through time. The motion of the flying birds at the end of the film (as Diop decides to take Maji out for ice-cream) evokes both fragility and bliss—their differences suspended for the moment in the pleasure of the aerial drift.
We are living in a realm of simultaneous temporalities—of systemic failures, non-human agency and an abundance of distraction—where narratives such as these directors' function as a language of healing against a landscape of depletion and exhaustion. Can there be resistance in a resting body? Can the lens-based medium be a tool to re-organise the reality of the mundane? Does a collapse of familiar codes always promise anew permutation? The ubiquity of cinema on streaming platforms in the contemporary moment, enabled by the infrastructure of indoor-viewing, is borne out of an imperative to engage while isolated, and is promissory ground for altered modes of perception. In the absence of touch in both films, a code of touch is invented instead, where the focus manifests through prolonged observation of bodies at risk.
Mati Diop's 'In My Room' premiered at the Venice International Film Festival and is now part of the MUBI Library. It is also part of the ongoing series commissioned by Miu Miu, titled 'Women's Tales'. Jonathan Glazer's 'Strasbourg1518', also part of the MUBI Library, is a MUBI release.