John Malkovich is a man who likes to take his time, whether putting together THE DANCER UPSTAIRS, his directorial debut in films, or in answering questions and about the art and craft of acting on stage and on screen. It led to a fair amount of philosophizing when I interviewed him on April 17, 2003 and a thoughtfulness to his answers that is rare during the rush of typical press tours. His musings on the place of violence in films as well as the roots of revolution are as intriguing as his film and just as compelling.
THE DANCER UPSTAIRS is a stunning exploration of passion and delusion, and not just the romantic kind, though the power of Eros is seen here as just as treacherous as the political backdrop of the story. Set in an unnamed South American country in a time specified only as the recent past, an honest man, the regally named Agustin Rejas (Javier Bardem), has struck an uneasy inner truce between his ideals and the realities of the corruption around him. An ex-lawyer turned cop with a mordent, ready wit, he walked away from a financially and socially secure future determnined to seek justice another way when it became clear to him that establishing truth wasnt the only purpose of a trial.
Malkovich, in his cinematic directorial debut, has captured the essence of a country always on the verge of chaos, where sentiment is weakness and weakness can lead even smart people into bad decisions. This is a place and time where children blow themselves up for the cause, flirtations beget gunfire, and cultural events end in extreme political statements. People are dragged off by the authorities or the revolutionaries, filmed in long shots as though we were the populace at large, so inured to the sight of such things that it merits only a passing glance before moving on. Indeed, one character half-jokingly asks Rejas to warn her if revolution is imminent so that she dress appropriately. Shadows suffuse virtually every scene, as though a reminder that the dark side of the human soul is always present, capable of taking over. A perfect metaphor for the irony of a place where it is the police who are a corrupted and the revolutionaries are the ones who are the true idealists, bathed though those ideals are in blood. The blood, and there is a fair amount on screen, is handled in a way that is deliberately non-sensational. The camera does not flinch from the sight of a bullet wound or a dead dog hanging from a lamppost, neither does it linger gratuitously. It is a fact like any other in this world.