Ballerina Mathilde Froustey should be flying high. In 2013, she fled the inhospitable Paris Opera Ballet for the warmer, welcoming climes of the San Francisco Ballet, which has showered her with the title of Principal Dancer and the leading roles she has worked so hard for.
So the Froustey who confronts us in her boyfriend Charles Redon’s new documentary – filmed over a period of five years in France and California – comes as a shock. The opening sequences of In California promise a gritty, if not entirely novel, window on the backstage struggles of a gifted dancer, including her struggles with an eating disorder, injury, and professional disappointment. But it rapidly withers into an account of Redon’s obsession with Froustey, and the leaden spectacle of his flirtations with masochism.
Redon spies on Froustey via hidden webcam, films her in the shower, and as she lay ill with meningitis in a hospital bed. He films himself having sex with her — though we cannot be sure that it is Froustey in the sex scenes, since the female body is inert and face down, either passed out or otherwise uninvolved in the proceedings. Even more disturbing are the scenes in which Froustey wearily resists Redon’s filming, begging him repeatedly to stop. A few breathtaking shots of the majestic landscapes of California cannot compensate for the tedious close-ups of the filmmaker fondling the dancer’s naked, unresponsive body, her face out of the frame.
It seems that the restless Redon, completely out of his comfort zone in the United States, jobless and dependent on his girlfriend, has cast himself in the role of the evil sorcerer Von Rothbart in Swan Lake, complete with leather dog mask and whips, who will not release “Odette-Mathilde” from his infernal clutches. Is Froustey cursed to be filmed (and poorly edited) by Redon forever?
In addition to being a self-indulgent filmmaker, Redon is also the jealous type, and suspects Froustey has a new lover. She denies it, but defiantly flies off to Hawaii on vacation without him. But then the film takes a totally stupefying turn. In the surprise ending, the couple gets married in what appears to be Froustey’s hometown of Vieux-Boucau, a bucolic seaside community in southwestern France.
“Is this entire “documentary” a fiction?” we wonder despondently. “Where is Prince Siegfried? Did she ditch him in Hawaii?” And then we realize: San Francisco is the Prince. And maybe the curtain hasn’t yet fallen on this Swan Lake.
In California opens on Sunday, Jun. 5 at the San Francisco Documentary Festival.