I have two great loves. The first is poutine, because I’m a proper Canadian. The second is any movie scene of diegetic dancing. That may sound weirdly specific, but it my love for such scenes runs deep. I love movies, and there is nothing I love more in a film than watching characters start dancing out their emotions within the reality of the story. Musicals with choreographed dances are great, but that’s not quite the same. The way I see it, there are few things more cinematic than allowing dialogue to drop out in favour of characters letting loose to a great song.
I’ve been thinking about this love of mine for years now, and it recently came to mind after watching Xavier Dolan’s new film, Mommy. The film features a scene of three characters dancing in a kitchen to Canadian “national treasure” Céline Dion’s French-language song, “On ne change pas.” In a film filled with beautiful-cheesy songs, the Dion track stands out for the way the characters embrace its danceable rhythm. Catharsis set to music, without a word needing to be said. It’s stunning and instantly one of my favourite scenes in a film in quite a long time.
Unfortunately, Mommy is still playing the festival circuit, and that scene is definitely not available to share online. Instead, I’d like to share five of my favourite scenes of diegetic dancing on film. All of these scenes are best viewed in context, but even isolated they carry profound impact. So sit back, get into the groove, and check out… The Top 5 Dancing Scenes on Film.
5. “The Rhythm of the Night” - Beau Travail, Claire Denis (1999)
I’ll elaborate on director Claire Denis a bit more later in this list, but for now you can enjoy my #5 selection, from her 1999 film, Beau Travail. This scene, which closes the film and flows into the end credits, is perhaps a dream, or a flashback, or a purely metaphorical exercise, but in any case it represents the last throws of life and torment in a man who, as implied by the scene preceding it, has just committed suicide. Actor Denis Lavant, throws himself into the song, physically expressing the inner madness of a character who’s spent the whole film expending that madness in much darker, more subtle ways.
4. “O’Children” - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, David Yates, (2010)
3. “Ending Scene” - Mother, Bong Joon-ho (2009)
The ending of Bong Joon-ho’s incredible film, Mother, mirrors its opening, in which the titular mother is seen dancing alone in a field. At the end, though, what had been a more obtusely metaphorical scene is transformed into one of pure release. In the clip above, starting around 2 minutes in, we see the mother on a bus, just having left her son behind, joining in on the dance party that’s formed around her. She soon joins them. All the weight of the previous couple hours are let go a moving display of literal movement. A remarkable way to end a remarkable film.
2. “Life’s a Bitch” - Fish Tank, Andrea Arnold (2009)
Andrea Arnold’s 2009 masterpiece, Fish Tank, features plenty of dancing. Its lead character, Mia, wants badly to become a hip-hop dancer, though as the film shows, she’s not very good. It doesn’t matter of course. To her, dance is an escape. It’s her way out of a difficult life in an English council estate. In the film, her relationship with her mother is extremely strained, and at the end she finally decides to venture out and make it on her own. In the penultimate scene, Mia finds her mother listening to a song she’d been practicing a dance to. Instead of starting a fight as she’s done several times throughout the film, she brings her mother into that escape. Her young sister joins in, too. It’s a scene of heartfelt reconciliation and understanding, all through sharing a dance, and it’s one of the best endings to a film I’ve ever seen.
1. “Night Shift” - 35 Shots of Rum, Claire Denis (2008)
Claire Denis is easily one of the best directors currently working, and a personal favourite. One of the ways she wormed her way into my heart is through scenes like these. The majority of her films feature at least one scene of dancing, and given her interest in bodies-in-motion, it’s no wonder they’re often incredible. In Denis’ films, dance is the distillation of all human feeling.
No such scene in her films is as pointed and complex as the “Night Shift” sequence from 35 Shots of Rum. It’s elevated by being more than just a release for the characters. In fact, there’s no release at all. Character relationships ebb and shift within the scene, their dynamics changing from second to second. The dancing is accompanied by longing, disappointed glances, and it’s all set to the loving, mournful sound of The Commodores ode to Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson. The scene is wistful and sad, and it does it all through the interplay of people dancing. It’s not just my favourite dancing scene in a film, but one of my favourite scenes of any kind in any film. A scene I’ll watch every now and then simply to marvel in its simple-yet-complex perfection. Cinema at its finest.
Corey Atad is a staff writer for Pajiba. He lives in Toronto.