At a taut 90 minutes, James Marsh’s latest creation explores the life of novelist, poet, WW2 soldier and Literature Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett, from his youth in Dublin all the way to his death at the age of 83 in Paris, the city where he first achieved notoriety and spent a significant chunk of his relatively long life. The movie title refers to Beckett’s famous quote: “Dance first, think later. It’s the natural order”. Despite the suggestion of joy and spontaneity contained in these, what we see in this film is a mostly unhappy and calculating man. He is dispassionate to his lovers, and very cynical about the quality of his literary output.
Almost entirely filmed in crisp black-and-white, and broken down into five chronological chapters – the first four devoted to significant people in his life: “Mother”, Lucia”, “Alfy (and Suzanne)” and “Suzanne (and Barbara)” -, Dance First is interspersed with conversations between Samuel and his consciousness (both skilfully played by veteran Irish thespian Byrne). He has just escaped the auditorium where he received his Nobel Prize in 1969 through a gap in the stage roof, but not before after uttering “Quelle Catastrophe!” to his French wife Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil (Sandrine Bonnaire) and angrily picking up his award without delivering an acceptance speech. We meet a man who shuns accomplishment and happiness in favour of introspection and suffering. The stereotypical portrayal of an artist with a tormented soul. A genius who crushes under the weight of his own talent.
Samuel does not carry the wight of guilt on his shoulders (just pessimism), despite several people in his life having encountered tragic predicaments and death as a direct consequence of his actions. His formidable mother passed away shortly after he left home vigorously confronting her: “You must now come to the realisation that you don’t control me”. Lucia, the “giddy” daughter of James Joyce (Aidan Gillen), spent most of her life in a mental institution after a young Sam (played by Finn O’Shea) rejected the engagement proposal crafted by her cunning parents (Lucia had a platonic love for Samuel, which was never reciprocated). Samuel’s Jewish friend Alfie died at battle during WW2 after Samuel prematurely returned home. A few years after the War, our protagonist receives the prestigious Croix de Guerre award, which he dismisses a mere survival token rather than a celebration of his alleged bravery. Samuel’s relationship to Ireland’s most famous writer is also addressed. He worked as Joyce’s assistant in Paris during the late 1930s. He seemed to possess both admiration and contempt for the man, the negative sentiments becoming more pronounced after after the “break-up” with Lucia.
While pithy and informative about the life of Samuel Beckett (there isn’t much insight into his actual work, though), Dance First fails to elicit from viewers both laughter and emotion. This is a cold and formulaic film, strangely at odds with Beckett’s widely recognised tragicomic style. The artist’s sense of irony and self-deprecation are a lot more palpable, but that’s not enough to make for a enrapturing watch. The dialogues lack freshness and spontaneity, and Samuel;s relationships are entirely devoid of intimacy. While the writer’s approach to love may have been bleak and half-hearted, it is hard to believe that he did not share more intense and passionate moments with neither his lifetime partner and wife nor with BBC script editor and critic Barbara Bray (Maxine Peake), with whom he had an affair for many decades. Dance First faces the music but does never dares to dance.
Dance First was the closing film in the Official Competition of the 71st San Sebastian International Film Festival (when this piece was originally written. Also showing at the Turin Film Festival, and at the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival. It is in UK cinemas on Friday, November 3rd.