Film Review: Johnathan Glazer’s (2020) Strasbourg 1518

Johnathan Glazer’s (2020) short film Strasbourg 1518 is a kinetic embodiment of experience under the necessary but life-altering COVID19-pandemic lock-downs. It is a perpetually perfect choreographed cathartic and exhausting ride through contemporary ritual, repetition and regeneration. There is a rich history to the film–about a dancing mania in the town of Strasbourg in the year 1518; however, its focus is clearly on the present.

As a wave of lock-downs rippled across the globe in early 2020, more than 3.9 billion people, representing over half of the world’s human population, had been “asked or ordered to stay at home by their governments to prevent the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus.” The film starts with a middle-aged white woman woman clasping her face with her hands, twirling; the news has broke: stay at home. Remain-in-place. She absorbs the shock, then begins – after a few circular shoulder movements plus a slight, graceful stretch – creepily laughing. Oh 2020! In the interspace of Greenwich Meantime, she personifies the reactions of millions; a kind of abject fear mixed with excitement: old routines breaking down, and an ancient regime of tasks no longer required; with, in fact, many of them banned.

The recent past seems so long ago. Every time I watch a film with a scene of people in a bar, a discotheque, a carnival, or unmasked among others in public, I think that couldn’t happen now. Glazer’s film reveals the madness-in-responsibility – we all needed to stay home, and many of us still do – limiting social interaction is key to reducing the spread of the virus. Yet, no-thing has yet quite captured what that means in our homes, our lives, quite like Strasbourg 1518. As the film progresses, we are taken into different spaces, all barren, and all with a lone dancer; an East Asian woman dances in her apartment, barefoot on wooden floors, washing her hands exactly the same way, over and over, in a never clean bucket. We are never clean enough. There is no furniture. These are spaces stripped of all their social functions; these are places of bare living; necessary but not sufficient. Different dancers move through differing sized rooms – economic and spatial inequalities collapse or expand kinetic and psychic boundaries. Light changes demonstrate different hours, different days; clock time melts down to below zero.

A middle-aged white man begins to dance, cackling, alone and next to a large gas fireplace. A few items sit obscurely on this only ‘prop’ in the room. Edit-cut and it is night, then day; we are living through the end of time (not history). A Black man in Senegal sits in a room, in floral dress, eyes wide open, fearful, twitching at what seems to be – off camera – the door, the outside. Contagion lurks, yet beauty is still found in that floral dress, in those movements, in the regenerating resilience that isolation requires.

An androgynous figure moves gracefully in the British twilight. Another woman pulls up a long red shirt (dress?) exposing her body, monotonously, to what seems to be a unseen public. Instagram celebrity? With most all of us on social media bargaining for attention, or working remotely, or sitting unemployed on furlough – or unemployed with a reduced or no income – isolated, alone together through the great global bio-hacked noosphere, exhibitionism becomes more streamlined, less messy, until it breaks down. Those novels, plays and symphonies met to written, those canvases sitting in the corner to be painted, those ideas we expected to instantiate often got ground down by the wearisome, unvarying flatness of mobile feeds, memes and cat videos.

No, these are not homes, they are minds. Minds barren of the old repetitions of commute, coffee, cubicles, construction sites, physical commerce, but laden with new repetitions layered – palimpsest like (for a day in 2020 equals two years in actual spacetime) – upon the old regime. The systems of the old regime haven’t broken, they are just masked, and in the interregnum, when many hoped for a return to previous repetitions, new types of compulsions, some of them conspiratorial-paranoid, burst forth. Repressed desires, longings, needs and more returned invoking the mania of the dancers of Strasbourg, some 502 years ago.

Every morning, when I wake up, for ten seconds, I am free. This line repeats, monotone, tediously. The speed intensifies, gaining a manic acceleration cresting at around 7 minutes / 45 seconds. The dancers, all exceptional, repeat movements until a near collective collapse around 8 minutes / 15 seconds, and then they start it all over again.

As we all must.

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Mubi Notes

“Strasbourg 1518 takes its inspiration from an unexplained mania that swept the city of Strasbourg in July 1518. What began with a few people dancing in the summer heat soon became an epidemic that seized the city for three months, with hundreds compelled to dance uncontrollably.”

My After Notes

Johnathan Glazer’s oeuvre is exceptional, ranging from the controversial – and brilliant – Birth (2004), the deadly serious crime-comedy Sexy Beast (2000) with Ray Winstone, Under The Skin (2013) to an interesting music video collaboration with musicians Jack White and Alison Mosshart for their song Treat Me Like Your Mother (2009). Mubi describes the music video, “Jack White & lead vocalist Alison Mosshart walk across an open field outside of a suburban neighborhood carrying automatic weapons (M4 carbine by Jack White & Heckler & Koch MP5 by Alison Mosshart) dressed in black leather jackets. They then proceed to fire at each other.” Timely, for 2009-2019. Although time has collapsed, so now Glazer has adapted.

As I wrote this, I received three packages. Masked and gloved, I went to collect them. Washed my hands singing Happy Birthday, a song I have come to loath, and while disinfecting the parcels and their contents I thought: Is Glazer filming me? What microchip am I living in? The pandemic is increasing in pace, with second and third waves hitting Europe, North and South America, India and some nations in Africa (although Senegal, one of the two locations in the film, has done an excellent job in managing the crisis with very limited resources.)

Filming took place in the United Kingdom and Senegal.

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