An absolutely amazing piece of sociological science fiction, Jean Renoir’s silent dance musical “Sur un air de Charleston” is twenty minutes of hilarious, zany satire. It is also a bold statement that contradicts the position that photography and theater are the principal art forms in which cinema finds its roots. Renoir casts his compelling vote instead for dance as the art form with which cinema has the closest affinity. In this, Renoir’s short film looks back to the dream passage in his La fille de l’eau (1924) and looks ahead to one of his masterpieces, French Cancan (1954).
The time is a hundred years into the future. In a globular aircraft, a black man from central Africa lands in Paris, which war has ravaged and shredded. There, he encounters a sex-starved girl who lusts after him and dances the charleston. The visitor, who is sexually timid, recognizes in her frenzied, tribal movements a dance of his ancestors that he may only have read about. The girl joins the visitor for his flight back to Africa, where she will reintroduce her “white Aboriginal” dance.
Working from an idea by André Cerf, Pierre Lestringuez’s script reverses both white and black stereotypes to exhilarating, liberating effect. The girl is the only surviving human in Paris that we see. She behaves primitively, while the visitor, from a technologically advanced society, is something of a dandy. But he is fascinated by the girl’s charleston, which the girl “indefatigably” endeavors to teach him and he proficiently learns by mimicking her moves. (One wonders whether she has taught her pet ape to “act human” in much the same way: by exaggerated example and tireless repetition.) Contributing to this aspect of the material is the fact that the visitor is played by Johnny Huggins, a black man, in white man’s blackface, except for his painted-white lips, all of which create a truly unsettling image that sardonically comments on a store of racist minstrel history. Renoir is being very brave here.
Most of the film is taken up with—because of its high energy, one might say consumed by—the charleston. (Catherine Hessling, Renoir’s then-wife, seems even to dance up the rope ladder when boarding the aircraft.) At first, we cannot make heads or tails of what seem the girl’s frenzied, disjointed movements. Ah, but we recognize the charleston once Renoir applies slow motion to it; and thereafter, even when Renoir speeds up the motion beyond possibility, we have no difficulty discerning the particular dance. Cinematic plasticity comes to suggest human possibility—an equation that Renoir’s employment of the futuristic genre helps justify. In turn, all this suggests another element of the same equation: dance, as it strives for plasticity, exploring the capacities of the human body for both form and movement. Like the charleston, Renoir’s film has a “spring in its step,” and the transformations that result from this—the lusting girl’s becoming a dedicated teacher; the stiff visitor’s becoming a brilliant, limber pupil—suggest the human capacity to change socially, morally, politically: the same result to which the film’s racial stereotype reversals are aimed. Ultimately, a community of “angels” appear in the heavens overlooking the African and the Parisian, who herself is poised to become an African immigrant: another reversal, this time involving the more customary direction of human migration: movement. The angels appear only as bodiless heads, their globular appearance linking them to the African’s aircraft, hence, given the terms of the film, humanity’s future; at the same time, they are also linked to dance, since it is the charleston that is filling their vision, and to cinema, because they are in effect watching the film that we are watching. One of those angelic heads, I might add, belongs to Jean Renoir himself.
Light and breezy, considered as aimless by many, this film is packed. I cherish every second of it, including the one note of irreversible abandonment and loss: played by a human in an ape-suit, the girl’s pet in tears when his or her only companion takes off. There is no place in Africa—the future—for this ape, a symbol of humanity’s nostalgic attachment to the past. Even the charleston will somewhat change in its new (though old) environment. Let the new dance begin.
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