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Renowned ballet master and choreographer Benjamin Millepied attempts to rejuvenate the Paris Opera Ballet in director Thierry Demaizière’s new film Reset.

2.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Reset
Directed by
Thierry Demaizière
Country
USA
Language
English

Last February, Benjamin Millepied caused a stir in the ballet world by announcing his resignation from the Paris Opera Ballet. He'd been artistic director for all of 14 months after being appointed to great fanfare and hope. Millepied had plans to revitalize the oldest ballet company in the world – an institution shrouded in French tradition – and much was made of his relative youth (37 at the time) and reputation as an innovator on the American ballet scene. What went wrong, and how it went wrong so quickly, has been the topic of much speculation, with some citing the company's enduring rigidity, others a more trenchant rigidity in France itself, and some offering tabloid-like conjecture that his famous wife, actress Natalie Portman, wanted to move back to Los Angeles.

Reset is poised to tell us a part of this story from a fascinating perspective: its buildup. Director Thierry Demaizière followed Millepied through the 39-day rehearsal process for his first ballet as company leader, a challenging and highly musical work titled Clear, Loud, Bright, Forward. The documentary finished filming in September, 2015, months before Millepied's resignation. So, naturally, you'd expect the film to reveal something in the way of an internal company conflict, if not unravel like a balletic prelude to war.

But Reset's story is largely a benign one: An energetic newcomer rallies the lower ranks of his company to put on a great show. Millepied can't stop effusing about the talent of the corps de ballet dancers he's handpicked to work with, and how much they flourish under his special attention. Even as the clock ticks closer to opening night, and Millepied has yet to finish his ballet, he remains a calm and confident leader, more concerned with his dancers' well-being (he insists that they get their calves massaged regularly) than with his own responsibilities or ego.

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While we do hear him explain his frustrations with certain outmoded protocols, and make a few critical remarks on the company's status, the process is generally so smooth and rosy that it's hard to reconcile with what we know happened next. Why would Millepied quit this benevolent environment? You can't help but wonder whether Demaizière was digging very deep.

Even if we do imagine that Millepied's internal and external conflict didn't really begin until the film crew had wrapped, Reset is remarkably undramatic – to both good and bad effect. For the first half of the 110-minute film, I found myself reminded of the slow-TV phenomenon in Norway, in which an ordinary event is captured in real time and broadcast for days. Millepied is shown walking down the hallways of the Palais Garnier – the Paris ballet and opera house – bouncing in his sneakers around different studios, fiddling with his phone, having conversations of little depth. The most tension seems to arise from the fact that his assistant (Virginia Gris) is frequently unable to find him and must resort to calling out his name in exasperation.

But midway through the film, this level of unstructured naturalism crosses a threshold from boring to subtly compelling. The scenes start to provide flashes of character and insight into the quirks and intricacies of the artistic process. In a wardrobe meeting, designer Iris van Herpen tells her team with religious conviction that a costume's black "should be less black," and that the white can actually be "a very light grey."

The young, edgy American composer Nico Muhly bursts into rehearsal and embarrasses Millepied with a big bear hug. We listen to a nutritionist instruct the dancers on how much salt to add to their sports drinks, in order to effectively rehydrate. We eavesdrop on former étoile Aurélie Dupont (and Millepied's successor as director) tell Letizia Galloni – the first mixed-race dancer to perform a lead role at the POB – that she has great instinct onstage, but has to learn to let herself go. No scene is exactly riveting, but the accumulating minutiae draw us in.

Alban Teurlai's cinematography captures gorgeous corners of the Hausmann-era theatre, and Paris's wraparound skyline from its roof. He creates several beautiful montages that make a painterly blur of activity, capturing the dancers at different stages of the rehearsal process or drifting in slow motion through a sequence of steps. But his camera tends to prioritize the shot over the dancing, never resting on the performer long enough for us to appreciate the skill we've heard lauded.

For ballet fans – surely the film's key audience – the effect is like a never-ending tease. We're baited with flashes of excellence that we don't get to see in full.

Reset runs at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto through Jan. 6, and Vancity Theatre in Vancouver from Jan. 1 to Jan. 15.

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