The “Grand Ball” is an epic folk-dance festival that occurs every year in Gennetines, not far from Moulins, in central France. Taking place in the middle of the summer and lasting for over a week, it sees a diverse mixture of people converge on a gigantic estate where several wooden dance floors have been installed under marquees, and where different European bands play music for 90-minute stretches to allow people to give themselves over to different types of dancing. This fascinating annual event is chronicled in the documentary ‘Le Grand Bal’ from writer-director Laetitia Carton (‘I will advance to you with the eyes of a deaf person’).
Carton’s film opens with a 10-minute long prolonged tracking shot down the roads of the Allier region en route to the Grand Bal in Gennetines. The documentary then throws viewers straight into a frenetic night time dance. Most of the choreography happens on the dance floor but the music also spills out from underneath the marquee and into the dark of night, where people sit and stand around, chat and drink. It’s an immediately entrancing spectacle, edited together by Rodolphe Molla.
The documentary mixes observational elements with personal ruminations in a semi-poetic voiceover about the filmmaker’s own relationship with dance. None of the interview subjects are ever named or even introduced. Instead, the camera floats from anonymous person to person, like a dancer passing from partner to partner during one of the many waltzes, mazurkas or bourrees that occur on the dance floors during the long nights (from about nine in the evening until at least three in the morning, though workshops start every day right after breakfast for those interested in learning new dances).
Using four cinematographers, including Carton herself, the film focuses on couples dancing cheek-to-cheek and others who hold each other at a shoulder-length distance; the coordinated body movements as well as the individual experience within larger groups, such as in a lovingly-held shot of a couple nearly standing still, in each other’s arms, as people around them continue to dance.
The camera floats from anonymous person to person, like a dancer passing from partner to partner during one of the many waltzes, mazurkas or bourrees that occur on the seven dancefloors over the course of the long nights
When people aren't dancing, they mosey down to the patchwork of colourful tents set up at nearby properties to read, play musical instruments (the accordion seems to be a favourite) and try and catch some sleep in hammocks between events. Women chat about the fact they sometimes dance with their girlfriends, so they need to learn how to lead and take charge. Continuing that theme, the men chat about the unusual sensation of asking female partners to lead and the relinquishing of control. Teenagers discuss the many years it has taken them to master enough dance moves to truly enjoy the festival.
A captivating snapshot of an unusual event, ‘Le Grand Bal’ is at once questing and intimate. It's a hypnotic look at the human identity, as an individual as well as part of a collective, through the lens of music and dance.