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Koch Lorber presents
Degas and the Dance (2003)

"Nothing in art should resemble an accident."
- Edgar Degas

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: April 14, 2004

Stars: Richard Kendall, Jill De Vonyar, Frank Langella, Brian Bedford
Director: Mischa Scorer

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 00h:54m:08s
Release Date: April 06, 2004
UPC: 741952303398
Genre: art

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+BB B-

DVD Review

Despite the conclusions you might reach from the museum gift shop, Impressionism was in fact not merely raw material for wall calendars and coffee mugs, and it was certainly a whole lot more than pretty little pictures of sunsets and bridges and haystacks. This documentary, which functions as a sort of companion piece to a museum exhibition of the same name, organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts, is an intelligent and largely successful look at a particular aspect of the Degas catalog raisonné, and it's particularly good at situating the painter in a sociological and art historical context.

The images of Degas's mature style can be divided almost entirely into two categories, of washerwomen and ballerinas. This film focuses on the latter, of course, though one of the points is that both sets of images show women at work, doing physical labor. The dance, of course, has a certain cachet that domestic work does not, and it also allows Degas to get at social stratification in his Parisian society; perhaps a companion exhibition and documentary could be made on the other significant set of images in the artist's oeuvre.

Basically, the documentary breaks down into three storytelling strategies, each of which achieve various degrees of success. At the top of the pyramid are the Degas works themselves, and their explication by, among others, Richard Kendall and Jill De Vonyar, the co-curators of the Detroit exhibition. The conversation includes not only Degas's canvases, but also his sculptures, drawings, even his attempts at photography. A lot of hardcore curatorial work has gone into this—we see where Degas worked, which operas and ballets he saw, what the theaters looked like at the time, and so forth. The filmmakers also travel from Michigan to Paris, to shoot footage at the Palais Garnier, the same opera house familiar from so many of Degas's works. The dancers rehearse in the same rooms, and perform in the same spaces; even the walls are painted in the same colors as they were in the 1870s. After a few shots of this, though, the points are made, and it's not especially edifying; in fact, you start to get the sense that we're looking at some of this footage because the shoot was an excuse for at least a few of those behind the camera to hang out with scantily clad Parisian hotties. (Hey, baby, wanna be in the movies?) Then again, there's an appropriateness to that, as the director of the Paris ballet relates to us that what supermodels are to our time, prima ballerinas were to Degas'.

Least successful are the re-creations of Degas and his time; in his studio, with models, and so forth. Degas's letters are read by an off-screen Brian Bedford, leaving the mute actor on screen with little to do but ponder and sketch and ponder; with his great beard and forbidding countenance, he looks as if he wandered into the studio off of a box of cough drops. Still, this is an informative look at one of the mid-nineteenth century masters, both as a man of his time and place, and as an innovator in form, composition and color. Degas's images have become familiar ones to us, taken for granted, but this wasn't so in his day; as one of the curators reminds us, Degas "should never be categorized as simply a charming realist."

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Colors can be a little too bright here, but generally it's a clean transfer, with little or no debris introduced in the port over to DVD.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Frenchno

Audio Transfer Review: You can choose to watch the film in either our native tongue or Degas'; either way, the audio tracks are pretty clean and unremarkable.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 34 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
6 Deleted Scenes
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Nine Degas images with curatorial commentary (see below)
  2. DVD credits
Extras Review: You'll find a few more healthy dollops about the painter, his work, and his time in the extras package. Aside from brief notes on the filmmakers and curators, there's an audio tour of sorts—it's like a truncated version of the taped tours on headset you can rent at museums. This one offers nine Degas images, with informative commentary from the exhibitions' curators. There's more of the same in three clips of the curators in front of Degas canvases, commenting on and describing them to us; even better are the three clips from Paris of Degas haunts, including the pastel shop where he bought his supplies. Bare-bones biographical information on the artist can be found on a timeline here, as well.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

A brief, cogent look at a vital aspect of Degas's work. If the galleries at the museum are too crowded, or if you can't make the trip to the Jeu de Paume, this is a pretty fair substitute.


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