The Dancer Upstairs (2002)
Updated: Apr 30, 2020
By: Ali Moosavi
Ever since the studio system, with actors under long contracts and obliged to take whatever role they were assigned, was abolished, more and more actors and actresses have had a go at directing motion pictures. For some, it has been fulfilling a genuine creative need while for a few it has served as an ego trip. There have been many actor-directors, specially since the 80’s, when Robert Redford’s directing Oscar for Ordinary People (1980), against Scorsese’s Goodfellas no less, opened the floodgates. Those actors with enough clout, who saw a better chance of success in Oscars for directing rather than acting, had a go with a surprising high success ratio. Redford’s success was replicated by Warren Beatty for Reds (1981), Kevin Costner for Dances with Wolves (1990), Clint Eastwood for Unforgiven (1992), Mel Gibson for Braveheart (1995).
There is, however, a more exclusive club for actors who only directed one film, but with the proviso that the single effort carried sufficient artistic value to be worthy of inclusion in this club. The most outstanding member of this club is Charles Laughton for his masterpiece Night of the Hunter (1955). Other members include Marlon Brando for One Eyed Jacks (1961) and Jack Lemmon for Kotch (1971). Though John Malkovich may yet direct another film, his only feature film directing effort so far, the political thriller The Dancer Upstairs (2002) ensures that he will be admitted to this exclusive club.
The Dancer Upstairs begins with two men and one woman travelling in a car in a rural road in an unnamed South American country while listening to Nina Simone singing a cover of Fairport Convention’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes. Time is an important theme of John Malkovich’s film, which is based on a 1995 novel by the British writer, Nicholas Shakespeare. The Simone song is a live recording and, as usual with her live songs, she talks a while before singing. One of the male passengers, of the indigenous Quechua tribe of Peru, asks why she is not singing. The other male passenger, who wears glasses and appears quiet and thoughtful, answers that she is preparing to sing. This simple sentence is a key trait of the central characters in the movie. They have the self-discipline to wait before the moment is right to make their move. The car knocks down a soldier trying to stop them and later stops at a border crossing where the duty sergeant Rejas (Javier Bardem), examines their documents and takes a photo of the bespectacled man. Before he can put the photo on the man’s document, the car and its passengers have sped away.
Flash forward five years and Rejas has been promoted to a lieutenant in the diplomatic arm of the police. Rejas though is not your ordinary policeman. We get to know this when his boss is going through his resume while giving him his new assignment. Rejas graduated with first class honours in law and worked for a very prestigious law firm. So, the police captain asks how you did end up with the police force? Rejas explains that as a lawyer he represented a girl who had accused the President of raping her. However, she later withdrew her complaint, after her father lost her job and her brother was raped. Captain asks Rejas why he didn’t follow his father’s business of running a coffee farm? Rejas answers because he lacks a coffee farms, adding that the military seized his father’s farm. Since the captain is about to give him an assignment to capture the President’s number one enemy, there is a question and answer exchange between them which is typical of Nicholas Shakespeare’s great ear for sparse, humorous and expressive dialogue:
- Captain: “Do you have a feeling about that or are you the Gary Cooper type?”
- Rejas: “Yes, I have a feeling about that but perhaps I am the Gary Cooper type!”
Rejas’s assignment is to capture the mysterious Marxist-Leninist revolutionary leader known as Ezequiel. His supporters are wreaking havoc in the country, assassinating ministers, judges, priests and other people holding positions of power and authority. Ezequiel and his supports are clearly based on Abimael Guzmán and The Shining Path party in Peru who terrorized the country until Guzmán capture in 1992. In the film, Ezequiel like Guzmán is a philosophy professor. Specifically, Ezequiel is a Kantian philosopher, perhaps because of Kant’s belief that the rightness or wrongness of actions does not depend on their consequences but on whether they fulfill our duty.
Rejas is a quiet, cultural, intelligent man with strong principles. When you have an actor of Javier Bardem’s capability, you don’t have to burden him with pages of dialogue to convey the filmmaker’s intentions to the audience. He can do this just by his facial expressions. His wife in the film is his total opposite, a vain, shallow beauty interested in selling skincare creams to her lady friends and pestering her husband to pay for a nose job. Malkovich and Shakespeare add another dimension to this political thriller by introducing Yolanda (Laura Morante), a ballet teacher who has Rejas’s daughter as one of her students. Yolanda is the soul mate that Rejas has been missing. But loving is not easy in the environment that Rejas is living and working.
The Dancer Upstairs is a multi-layered political thriller that repays repeat viewings. Malkovich has expertly handled both the suspense and the underlying political and sociological themes that one associates the political thrillers and the complex love angle. He pays a homage to the master of political thrillers Costa-Gavras by having an excerpt from his State of Siege play a key role in Rejas’s investigation. When Rejas asks his captain what he thought of State of Siege, the captain answers: “the terrorists are all very handsome French actors with scarves while the policemen looked like the inside of a butt!”. I sincerely hope that John Malkovich has not hung his directing gloves and will again be behind the camera in the not too distant future.