Grey school corridor with male and female dancer in distance, dressed like the characters in the musical Oklahoma. In the foreground a school janitor looks on


Dance+: I’m Thinking of Ending Things

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The dream ballet in Charlie Kaufman’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Photo: Mary Cybulski/Netflix
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The dreamspaces of dance and narrative cinema coincide in the unreal romance of Charlie Kaufman’s film

At first, it looks like just another sweet, romantic ballet duet, but do not believe your eyes: in this movie nothing is quite what it seems. For at first, the plot of I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020) seems simple enough too: a fresh couple (Jesse Plemons and Jessie Buckley) drive to visit his parents for the first time, while she already considers leaving him – or ‘ending things’ with him. But then it all starts to get more and more bizarre: he responds to thoughts she never said out loud; his parents’ age continuously changes during their visit; she keeps getting mysterious phone calls; and even her name alters occasionally. By the time we get to that ‘dream ballet’ scene near the end, most viewers will have more questions than answers as to what is really going on in this film.

A fantasy in a corridor lined with locked references: the dream ballet in I’m Thinking of Ending Things

True to style, writer-director Charlie Kaufman leaves much room for interpretation (and internet speculation), but there’s general agreement on one thing: it is a movie of fantasies and missed chances. According to the most frequent explanation (supported by Iain Reid’s book that the film is based on), the school janitor who appears several times throughout the plot is in fact the older version of Jake, the couple’s male partner, who, while ‘thinking of ending things’, imagines a life that could have been his own.

The movie is full of cultural references (Jake likes to show off his knowledge of art), but it owes most to Jake’s favourite musical, Oklahoma!, and especially to its psychologically loaded dream ballet – a format common in American film musicals, here choreographed by Agnes de Mille for the 1955 cinema version. From concrete moves to iconic moments (like the bridal veil dropping from the sky), choreographer Peter Walker takes a lot from the classic forebear for this key scene in the movie, danced charmingly by New York City Ballet’s Unity Phelan and Broadway star Ryan Steele.

Following up on the chain of art references, Jay Wadley composed a score that sounds like he put the best of Stravinsky’s and Debussy’s ballet music into a mixer. To the gentle opening tunes of harp and flute, the two dancers set out not only to embody the more flawless and adorable versions of Jake and his girlfriend, but also to present an allegory of perfect romance: the kind that only exists as an ideal. It’s almost comically exaggerated, like a grand ballet pas de deux: right at the beginning they run towards each other, then he lifts her up and dramatically catches her; then there’s an arabesque lift and an elegant bend, standing in a glamorous ray of light that shines on them through the windows. And yet their dance has nothing of the self-conscious presentation of a ballet duet. Every playful jump, head-spinning turn and criss-cross of the arms is in perfect harmony, their partnering is intimate with frequent soft touches. This is a couple that is in accord, in unison.

But there’s still a faint feeling of irony as trivial things distract from the dreaminess of the choreography. After all, this dance takes place in a narrow school corridor where locker doors sometimes get in the way, and instead of a proper fountain there’s only a water tap to provide some rather unspectacular background. Compensating for the restrictedness of the space there’s the camera that gives a flow to the scene by smoothly moving along with the dancers. After they mime their wedding on the spot, suddenly the music turns uncanny and violent (à la Le Sacre du printemps) as a middle-aged man (probably another incarnation of the school janitor) attacks the newly wed dance couple and tries to grab away the woman. Dancer Jake struggles with him in the school gym amidst a fake snowstorm and, after being stabbed with a knife, bleeds red scarves while the original Jake and girlfriend watch over him. They don’t seem astounded, and who could blame them? It was only a fantasy. Too bad it means the romance wasn’t real either. 

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