Zeroing in on the art of rehearsal, "Becoming Traviata" is an exquisitely observed look at performance and the creative process. You don't need to be an opera buff to appreciate Philippe Béziat's documentary, which makes the essentials of Verdi's romantic drama "La Traviata" clear while building its own stirring narrative around a French festival production's director and star.
Béziat takes in many telling details of the work-in-progress, from the backstage paintbrushes to the crew members working out their scenery cues, but the pulse of his film is the interaction between the director, Jean-Francois Sivadier, and the soprano, Natalie Dessay. As they prepare for a run of 2011 performances in Aix-en-Provence, their give-and-take is riveting, whether they're discussing a scene (procrastinating, Dessay says with a wonderful laugh) or enacting it.
Together, they work out the impulses behind the words and actions of the "fallen woman" Violetta, and Béziat pays careful attention to the way Sivadier's direction registers, or not, with Dessay. Sometimes there's a spark of insight, but at least as often her face clouds with misgivings. Watching her, alone or in scenes with tenor Charles Castronovo or baritone Ludovic Tézier, the director is a picture of rapt intent, his mouth working, his gaze alert to every nuance. In their striving for the perfect gesture — variations, one after another, of an embrace or a collapse — the movie strikes its deepest and most vibrant chords.
Defying expectations, Béziat doesn't build toward a triumphant opening-night curtain call. He does provide glimpses of Sivadier's stripped-down and elegant staging, and when the camera pulls back, only once, for the full proscenium effect, the immediacy is powerful. But this "Traviata" ends in midstream, with Dessay practicing, tirelessly, how to fall.
— Sheri Linden
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes. In French with English subtitles.
Playing: Laemmle's Royal, West Los Angeles, Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle's Town Center 5, Encino