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Brothers’ Peepers: Gaël Morel’s “Three Dancing Slaves”

Brothers' Peepers: Gaël Morel's "Three Dancing Slaves"

Andre Techiné‘s “Wild Reeds,” still as urgently humane now as when it was released in 1995, has bestowed quite a legacy upon the new generation of French filmmaking. That film’s psychosexual and political tangles have slowly but surely created tendrils that have reached all the way through an entire decade’s worth of youth cinema. If Techiné’s tender evocation of adolescent confusion and the growing social and moral awareness of a group of young friends in the early Sixties during the ongoing French-Algerian conflict had any sort of direct effect on the national cinema, it has been in its ability to pass on its spirit of rebellion to its cast members, all of whom have surfaced in projects that seem to try to recreate their touchstone film’s almost untenable emotional and sociopolitical longing.

Elodie Bouchez quickly parlayed her wide-eyed restless youthfulness into “The Dreamlife of Angels”; Stephane Rideau, subsequently in Ozon’s “Sitcom” and Lifshitz’s “Come Undone” has since become something of a contemporary French film poster boy for outré sexual expression; and Gaël Morel, “Wild Reeds“‘ sexually confused protagonist François, rather quickly went on to direct his own feature films, the first of which, “Full Speed,” depicted a young love affair similarly breaking boundaries of sexual orientation and racial divides.

Yet what Techiné managed so effortlessly, Morel attempted to grasp with much less delicacy; his new film, “Three Dancing Slaves,” perhaps finds Morel more in his element. As a filmmaker, he seems to rely on “big themes”; and just as “Full Speed” dealt with racial equality, “Three Dancing Slaves” might as well have words like “tormented masculinity” emblazoned in fiery font across the screen throughout its duration. Yet Morel’s latest, as searching as it may be for a true emotional center, is directed with a newfound surety, its pulverizing forward motion very much keeping in tone with Morel’s branding-iron approach to filmmaking.

Ostensibly a glimpse at the disrupted lives of three young brothers under the thumb of their tyrannical father after the death of their mother, “Three Dancing Slaves” is more of a treatise on postadolescent male angst and the stranglehold of dominant masculine roles. Morel’s world, here a backwoods rural community in the Rhône-Alpes, is one comprised almost completely of men (the film’s first actual female character disrupts the film at minute 78 of its 90-minute running time) and in which there are few emotional outlets. The middle brother, scowling, head-shaven Marc (Nicholas Cazalé), has fallen in with the wrong crowd and become mixed up with some vicious local thugs; oldest Christophe (Rideau), recently released from prison, must try to readjust to the outside world as he earnestly takes a job at the local meat factory; and the youngest, indifferent teenager Olivier (Thomas Dumerchez), remains aloof while attempting to reconcile his own burgeoning sexual orientation.

As each brother deals with his psychological trauma within his own discreet chapter, he finds himself trying to hold on to the other two but feeling increasingly pulled in different directions, yet Morel’s film often seems somewhat disinterested, for better or for worse, in tidy narrative arcs and dramatic setups. There’s a palpable anger at its center, yet it’s never quite easy to locate its source. Marc, Christophe, and Olivier are seriously damaged goods, but can one blame nebulous plot details like parental dominance or economic desperation? More generalized, and effective, is Morel’s approach to sickly, sallow male codes of behavior, and the film is at its best when it creates an almost faceless environment of free-floating volatile machismo.

Where “Three Dancing Slaves” most excels and baffles is at pushing the homosocial into an almost abstract homoeroticism. The brothers seem more identifiable by the differences in their musculature than in their opaque expressions: Cazalé, who with his chrome dome and penetrating stare resembles a young, wiry Yul Brynner, swaggers through the film like a single-minded runway model; Rideau, stockier with a heart-shaped visage and heavier brow, seems more physically stable, sturdy enough to roll with life’s punches; and Dumerchez, a few years away from shedding his baby fat down to the rippling six-pack that seems to bless every young man in this region, is nonetheless covered in tattoos that make him seem disconcertingly older.

Morel’s constant surveying of the male body’s delights and horrors at times segues into empty rancid visual parallels, not the least in a very nasty bit of business with Marc’s dog, and even in the conveyer belt-like procession of meat-processing imagery from Christophe’s workaday hell. Yet the male body here is a source of pride and punishment, a compact utilitarian instrument given to sweaty fits of sexual energy. This is the main thrill of “Three Dancing Slaves” (its translated title named after the gyrating, free-form Capoeira street dancing practiced by some of the characters that originated in slavery): it elevates (or lowers) middle-class drudgery into a soft-core fantasia. The impression one leaves the theater with has less to do with the family’s economic burden than it does with the odd glimpse of pube-trimming or ass-shaving. A randy Techiné disciple, Gaël Morel lets sociological discourse take a backseat to his voyeuristic urge. Its lingering money shot, of the three brothers sleeping peacefully and naked, their bodies languidly entwined, cocks hanging out, slowly pans over to show the father glowering at them from across the darkened room as he smokes a cigarette. From whose point of view is this no-frills homoerotic longing meant to derive? Morel doesn’t seem to care, as long as we look.

[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as an editor at Interview magazine and frequent contributor of Film Comment.]

Nicholas Cazalé in a scene from Gaël Morel’s “Three Dancing Slaves.” Photo by Philippe Quaisse, courtesy of TLA Releasing.

Take 2
By Jeff Reichert

Cut from the same cloth of confused, stymied rural manhood as Bruno Dumont‘s “La Vie de Jesus” but lacking that film’s frontal assault on comfortable spectatorship, Gaël Morel’s “Three Dancing Slaves”, a tripartite examination of a group of young brothers, feels somehow neither here nor there – frankly and refreshingly interested in male bodies and bonding rituals yet lacking the energy (or desire) to shoehorn its often lovely imagery into a narrative that builds towards an overall statement on all its shaving, grasping, and sweating. At the same time, though it might seem that this is the point – that Morel has his sights set on something truly loose and freeform, “Slaves” is never non-narrative enough to float like Claire Denis – his brief running length is heavily weighted with an awful lot of plot. It doesn’t help that Morel often falls back on trite cinematic commonplaces to move things along: work in a meat factory stands in for the problems of masculinity in capitalism, scenes of skydiving accompany sexual awakening – sure, this stuff saves time, but tossing it in feels borderline disrespectful for a film that seems fairly serious of intent.

“Three Dancing Slaves” is perhaps most laudable for its ability to keep us situated even as it throws us in the midst of a complicated family dynamic and circle of peripheral characters with little introduction to either. It’s the little gestures – only offhandedly signaling the familial relationship between Marc (Nicolas Cazalé) and his father (Bruno Lochet) after a few shots, or suddenly introducing Christophe’s (Stéphane Rideau) girlfriend as they announce their intent to move from the familial apartment where they’ve been living for months of time elapsed offcreen – that betray a willingness to let the audience play catch-up, a filmmaking move which always feels to me like an invitation to participate rather than an alienating effect. Given theses ambiguous lapses, the places where “Three Dancing Slaves” seems content to spell itself in all-caps feel all the more frustrating.

[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently employed as Director of Marketing and Publicity for Magnolia Pictures.]

Stéphane Rideau, Salim Kechiouche, Nicholas Cazalé, and Thomas Dumerchez in a scene from Gaël Morel’s “Three Dancing Slaves.” Photo by Philippe Quaisse, courtesy of TLA Releasing.

Take 3
by Nick Pinkerton

It would be plenty easy to bash Gaël Morel’s mean suburbs story “Three Dancing Slaves” for crimes of slightness – it does strike me as a more-than-usually unnecessary piece of work. But when viewed in the light of screenwriter Christophe Honoré’s frankly lascivious body of work (“Ma Mère,” “Girls Can’t Swim”), I can’t build up much animosity. He’s a highbrow cinema flesh peddler of the old school, when “Art Movies” was substitute code for imported smoker reels, and Morel invests his trade with an agreeable patina of shimmering cinematographic sophistication that easily shows up “9 Songs”‘ grubby ineptitude.

What lingering qualities the film does have come almost entirely from its specificities: of place (the rural Rhône-Alpes), milieu (young gym-addicted guys brought up in HLM buildings), time-of-year (the movie is divided into season-based chapters). There’s ostensibly a plot, but the movie’s heart is in the rituals of its exclusively masculine world (outside of a corpulent woman’s early cameo, no female appears until the movie’s final reel) and on the denizens of this rough trade Never-Neverland as they pry tank tops over their 2% body fat torsos, shave and streamline their bodies, indulge in homo-macho chest-bumping, and jerk off to porn together.

Pretty young men with their schlongs lolling on their thighs abound in this pre-op tranny-banging take on “I Vitelloni”; the rest is so much taciturn ex-burb despair and free-floating nihilism. Making an argument for “Three Dancing Slaves” as a shrewd sociological study seems like a bad idea, especially as one scene, tottering under a burden of symbolism, has infantile, revenge-driven Marc (Nicolas Cazalé) sniper scoping a rival from the turret of a playground structure, then being ambushed by a cowboys-and-Indians posse of tots. As an appreciation of flesh, the film is unimpeachable; as a block flat drama, it’s as showy and ineffectual as its wall-punching emotional fits. Put it next to Jean-Claude Brisseau’s “Sound and Fury” and it disappears.

[ Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor. ]

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