Who's In It: Brigitte Lefevre
The Basics: The contemporary master of the documentary film, Frederick Wiseman, takes you inside the beautiful 19th century-built Palais Garnier for a behind the scenes look at the Paris Opera Ballet. It's a two and a half hour (short by Wiseman's standards) voyeur-cam experience as you watch dancers rehearsing and performing, artistic directors courting deep-pocketed benefactors, cleaning, maintenance and cafeteria workers keeping the Palais palatial, costume designers tailoring outfits and even a beekeeper working on the roof.
What's The Deal: Aside from having seen the '70s melodrama The Turning Point, 1980's child-ballet-dancer-dies-of-cancer-at-Christmas drama Six Weeks (with Dudley Moore, it's seriously wrongheaded, so check it out), the 2005 documentary Ballets Russes, and one live performance of The Nutcracker, I don't know anything about the world of dance and can't say I'm usually compelled to investigate it much further. Which means you're probably more or less like me and wondering what business you'd have watching a movie like this. So I'll tell you: because it's fascinating (given a normal human level of curiosity, which you obviously have or you wouldn't be reading this review) to watch people and institutions you don't know anything about go about their work, and Wiseman's style is no-pressure because he explains absolutely nothing.
About All That Nothing: No disrespect to the agitprop-y, personality-driven documentaries of guys like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock--I like them both a lot--but Frederick Wiseman's kung fu is stronger than theirs. He points his camera, gets his footage and edits it in a way that feels as studious, objectively observant and scientific as you can get (even his films' titles are minimalist: Public Housing, Domestic Violence, State Legislature). He provides no narration, no voiceover, no captions, no explanation, no names, no interviews, nothing. You're on your own to pay attention or not, then you can draw your own conclusions. He's never pushy and he gives the audience room to breathe. In a media environment where someone's always barking in your face and telling you what to think, that's practically a miracle.
Probability That You'll Be Confused By Names Of Ballets, Choreographers And Composers You've Never Heard Of: Medium to high. But again, it's fine if you're not committing it all to memory and don't know new work from old. Think of it as an introductory course.
See Also, If You Can Find It: My favorite Wiseman doc, The Store, a 1983 look at the workings of the main Neiman Marcus store in Dallas, Texas. It's a mind-blowing time peek inside a time capsule, specially if you ever thought Sue Ellen Ewing was a fictional character.