Not everything is better in French, even though it sometimes feels that way in movies.
“Let’s Dance” is a light, artsy and sweet French variation on “dance battle” genre, home to many “Step Up” installments, “You Got Served,” “Battle of the Year” and the like.
It’s every bit as athletic and graceful — on the floor — as those films. There are cute touches, not the least of which is its central premise — bringing a corps de ballet to hip hop.
But whatever its French charms, its a “Step Up” movie without any sexual heat and nothing resembling sweat. Director Ladislas Chollat keeps his camera too far removed from the exertion and action far too often for the dance to pull us in.
The story’s clever deviations from formula don’t plug the holes in the picture’s heart. Romance is shortchanged, heartbreak is brushed over and serendipity overrules anything logical about the plot.
The leads are likable, and the comic scenes of conflict, inspiration and culture clash pay off. But the whole is missing too much to be a compelling 100 minute sit-through.
Three friends show up in Paris, 20ish dancers ready to join a crew and compete in the Masters of Hip Hop competition.
Joseph (Rayane Bensetti), Emma (Fiorella Campanella) and Karim (Mehdi Kerkouche) are gambling that they’ll be able to crash at Emma’s brother’s tiny flat, that they’ll be able to land jobs to support themselves, and that Emma’s inside-track on joining the crew of choreographer/dancer Youri (Brahim Zaibat) isn’t just for her.
Youri comes off as a jerk, bully and a spurned lover when Emma shows up with hunkier Joseph in tow. But one backflip-filled Joseph audition (45 seconds in length) later, and they’re in. Just like that.
We know it won’t last. The “my girl,” “No, MY girl” (in French, with English subtitles) tiffs grow, and Joseph and Karim find themselves knocking on a man’s door in the middle of the night, kicked out of Emma’s life and Youri’s dissolving crew.
The first interesting twist is this man they’ve come to stay with Rémi (Guillaume de Tonquédec) and Joseph have history. And as we’ve heard Joseph’s voice mail to his father, announcing he’s run off to Paris, we know he’s not his father. All we know is that he has a ballet school, used to be a dancer and is irritated as all get-out that the kid has shown up at his door.
The mind has a LOT of screen time to figure out this relationship — hustler-lover, uncle in the arts, first teacher — before the Big Reveal on what they are to each other.
What’s less mysterious is series of absurdly fortunate events that solves every character’s most urgent dilemma. Joseph and Karim need work. Joseph, now leading cast-offs from Youri’s crew, needs to learn how to choreograph.
And Rémi needs these messy, freeloading punks to pull their weight, pitch in, and oh — by the way — save his job at the ballet school that bears his name.
Teach his ballerinas and danseurs (the men) “to let go…dance like CRAZY!”
He contradicts himself in suggesting that Joseph and Karim teach “what cannot be taught,” but no matter. All of their problems can be solved by injecting this “new blood” into the stodgy school.
And maybe the hip hop crew can benefit from the relationship, too.
Scenes show the corps rebelling, then contemptuously slow-walking through Karim’s amusing, energetic routines. Rémi shows Joseph how to see dance in everday life as the street life of Paris pedestrians is transformed into a big, brief dance number.
There’s a cute, stubborn ballerina (Alexia Giordano) as uptight as her hair-bun, until Joseph ridicules her in class — “I don’t want to see the little rich girl! I want to see the DANCER!”
To its credit, the movie doesn’t lose itself in the “battles,” and the standard conflicts in such movies are played down. Youri disappears, and the “battle” is limited to an opening audience, and a finale. There are still conflicts, but the “love triangle” set up here is a non-starter.
Kerkouche, de Tonquédec and Giordano have the showiest roles. Bensetti has a kind of Garrett Hedlund in baggy camos quality, but doesn’t give us much more than his good looks in this performance. Some of it’s the writing, but there’s not a lot of flash in the actor behind the character, either.
Having reviewed all of the “Step Up” movies in theaters with the films’ target audience, I’m curious as to who will be interested in this PG (instead of PG-13) rated dance-off dramedy, in French (unless you switch languages for it) and with subtitles.
Sure, “Step Up” is ancient history now. No reason to assume anybody under 18 has seen any of the films, or even the Youtube series that spun out of them. Is the demand still out there for this genre, and if so, will they dig it without all the muscular, sweaty and sexual close-ups and the romances that spin out of that Invitation to the Dance?
MPAA Rating: TV-14
Cast: Rayane Bensetti, Alexia Giordano, Guillaume de Tonquédec, Mehdi Kerkouche, Fiorella Campanella, Brahim Zaibat
Credits: Directed by Ladislas Chollat, script by Ladislas Chollat and Joris Morio. A Netflix (Pathe) release.
Running time: 1:49