The people who packaged the sprightly, engaging American remake of Masayuki Suo’s 1997 Shall We Dance? did everything right. They hired Peter Chelsom, the bard of Blackpool, to direct a story that turns on that English resort’s famed ballroom-dancing competitions. They cast Jennifer Lopez, who rotates her hips more convincingly than she delivers lines, to play the appealingly melancholy dance instructor. And they got Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon, both eminently attractive and likable, to play the upscale suburban Chicago couple with the perfect marriage.
Oh, wait, that last part’s wrong. Strangely (yet unsurprisingly), the Hollywood transplant of Suo’s Japanese triumph simply ignores the original premise. The lonely husband—here John (Gere), an estate planner—feels drawn to the dance studio he passes every evening on the train because his is a life without romance. (That’s romance in the sense of champagne, tuxedos, and evening gowns, not just sex.) This premise resonated in Japan, where Shall We Dance? brought a whole new audience to the movies. That country’s strict societal roles discourage husbands and wives from going out together; men are more or less required to drink with their co-workers until it’s time for the last train. But in the United States—or even in Canada, where this remake was actually shot—there’s no taboo against taking up ballroom dancing with your spouse. No taboo would seem to mean no movie, but Chelsom and his cast simply prance ahead, hoping no one will notice.
Of course, the setup might work anyway if the filmmakers established that John was unhappy with his home life. But that would require that either John or wife Bev (Sarandon) be somewhat dislikable, which is strictly forbidden in cuddly Hollywood rom-coms. Instead, the reduced-conflict version of Shall We Dance? proposes merely that John and Bev are really busy. Unlike an average Japanese white-collar spouse, Bev has a full-time managerial job at a department store, so the two just don’t see each other that much. Whenever they do, however, everything seems fine among them and their two kids, who are teenagers of the untroubled sort. When Bev must leave during an evening John thought they were spending together, he looks more pleased than disappointed. Indeed, Gere’s star-power grin is never less than twinkly or beaming throughout the film, which makes his supposed disenchantment hard to credit. Perhaps Chelsom should have instructed Gere to think about the fate of Tibet when expressing John’s dissatisfaction with life.
Shall We Dance? opens with John on the El, reporting via voice-over that 1.5 million people use it daily. Including even the nonelevated sections of Chicago’s rapid-transit system, that overestimates ridership by almost a million, but it’s hardly unusual for a Hollywood movie to lie with its first breath. After that, the film stays on track by following Suo’s as closely as possible: On impulse, John hops off the train and enlists at the shabby, old-fashioned dance studio run by Mitzi (Anita Gillette). There he encounters beautiful, wounded Paulina (Lopez), who’s suspicious of any man who wants to dance with her, as well as a bunch of comic-relief figures. Chief among these is Link (Stanley Tucci), a closet Latin-dance aficionado who works—sans the shoulder-length wig—in John’s office. Together, these characters strive to win an upcoming dance contest, with John making the sort of progress that might be expected of someone who recently starred in Chicago. Meanwhile, Bev becomes concerned that her husband is having an affair and hires a private investigator (Richard Jenkins) to learn where John goes after work.
Being an American movie, this Shall We Dance? is more syrupy than its antecedent—a tendency exemplified by the use of Peter Gabriel’s irony-free rendition of the Magnetic Fields’ “The Book of Love”—and more flattering to its star. In the film’s latter half, there’s barely a scene in which someone doesn’t call John “awesome” or “spectacular.” A more confident director might have let the audience decide for itself about that, but then, Chelsom has reason to be nervous: Earlier Hollywood efforts such as Serendipity and Town & Country were fairly awful. Here he returns, at least partially, to the more emotionally complex tone of his British charmers, notably Hear My Song and Funny Bones. He lights Mitzi’s dance studio as if it were a bit of Blackpool on Lake Michigan, with cotton-candy hues whose garishness is almost poignant.
The desire to locate enchanted moments in the tawdry and workaday is the essence of Chelsom’s best work, and would be of this film, too, if only there were anything lacking in John and Bev’s lives. John is given a final-act speech that tries to cover for this, but it’s a flop. Rather, Shall We Dance? depends on viewers’ disregarding its premise altogether. Pretend that John and Bev live in a cramped two-bedroom apartment in outer Tokyo and haven’t had a substantive conversation in 15 years, and the rest of this nimble little film will flitter into place.
There’s only one dance scene in Zelary, which was the Czech nominee for the 2003 foreign-film Oscar, but it illustrates the central theme: city vs. country. Elisùka (Anùa Geislerová) is newly arrived in the village that provides the movie’s title, so she doesn’t know the stomping local steps. But she will soon learn the rustic region’s style, if not in dance, then at least in life. As previous events have shown, she has no choice: It’s 1943 and the Gestapo is on her trail. Of course, director Ondrùej Trojan and scripter Petr Jarchovsky«, working from Kvìta Legátová’s novella Jozova Hanule, seem to believe that Elisùka would be better off in the countryside under any circumstances.
Czech cinema has long been partial to gently comic pastorals, which is what Zelary is, albeit only part of the time. The film opens in an unnamed city, where Elisùka is a dedicated nurse and a fearless courier for the Czech resistance. She’s inspired in part by her passion for Richard (Ivan Trojan), who’s a doctor, her lover, and a fellow resistance member. After a Gestapo agent nearly intercepts Elisùka while she’s making a drop, Richard disappears without a word to her. Another underground member instructs Elisùka to travel to the country with Joza (György Cserhalmi), a sawmill employee whose life she just saved with a transfusion of her own blood. Now Joza will reciprocate.
Although Zelary is remote, it’s not beyond German control. Single women are pressed into work by the occupiers, so Elisùka (now calling herself Hana) must marry Joza. But even that doesn’t ensure her safety from the more troublesome locals, one of whom wants Elisùka to trade sex for his silence. Amid the generalized menace, the movie also introduces empathetic villagers—most of them women—wise domestic animals, and various folksy incidents. Elisùka’s new allies include a feisty midwife, an observant young girl with a loyal pet goat, and a homeless wild boy who leads the villagers to safety when the invading Russians supersede the retreating Germans as the principal threat to tranquility.
Zelary is two movies in one, alternating sun-dappled scenes of the simple life with the shadow-darkened horrors dealt to resistance members and innocent bystanders alike. The two complementary narratives fit together well enough, but without significantly deepening each other. Because Trojan takes it slow—the film runs 142 minutes—Geislerová and Cserhalmi can demonstrate at a credible pace how Elisùka and Joza’s marriage of convenience becomes a genuine union. Some of the incidents that challenge them, however, seem arbitrary, despite the fact that Legátová’s novella was based on actual events. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee that the story will appear true on screen, and though Zelary has moments that are genuinely moving, startling, or humorous, it inserts them into a template that couldn’t be more artificial: the bucolic Czech tragicomedy.CP