During a winter night of 1901, police raided a private house in Mexico City during a ball, all of whose upper-class attendees were men, half of them wearing corsets, dresses, jewellery and make-up. Yet, despite salacious media coverage, few arrests were withheld (the men were rich and could pay for their freedom) and no names ever published. Seeing as the identities of most of the attendees are still not known, this film adaptation of the historical event in Mexican queer history takes heavy artistic license. From this bare bone concept, the film attempts to create a captivating story. Does it succeed? Well, the answer, as ever, is complicated.
Dance of the 41 (2021, David Pablos), or El Baile de los 41 in its original Spanish, follows Ignacio de la Torre y Mier, a real person rumoured to be in attendance at The Dance of the Forty-One. In real life and in the film, he is married to the Mexican President’s daughter Amada. Fictionalised is pretty much everything else: he meets a lawyer named Evaristo (nicknamed Eva), brings him along to this secret gay society, pursues this relationship and neglects his wife.
The Forty One
The secret gay society is by necessity work of fiction, since the queer history of the attendees of The Dance of the Forty-One was erased (or probably never documented) to protect their reputation. Gay historical dramas are generally limited to two or maybe three queer characters ー they are afraid of discovery and don’t seek out other queer people beyond a romantic partner. Using this secret society as a reference point means that queer/homosocial friendship (a very significant aspect of queer identity and lifestyle) can be explored.
Ignacio is visibly at ease when you see him in the private house on Calle de la Paz where the secret society meets: his words roll softly off his tongue and his hands move fluidly. No longer does he hold onto the darkness and intensity that we, having seen him at home with his wife, know him for. The men, all from the upper echelons of society, lounge around chatting, smoking, flirting and playing cards under warm yellow candlelight. Some members don dresses and beads just as others don tail suits and top hats, even when not going to a ball. Their relaxed manner contrasts with our tense anticipation of the inevitable ー we know these men will be discovered because it is in the marketing for this film (and is also the basis for the source material).
After Ignacio welcomes Eva into the society through a highly camp and erotically charged initiation ceremony, they all sit for dinner, attended by muscular servants scantily-clad in togas and wearing crowns of leaves as if dressed as Greek statues. This servants’ dress, along with the Roman bath orgy scene which follows, calls on classical imagery from a time period known anecdotally as a haven for gay relationships ー especially for men with a similarly high status to those in attendance here.
The men chat, laugh, flirt, have sex ー but not necessarily in that order. During the aforementioned orgy scene, one man twirls around the room singing wearing nothing but an open robe. Not all engage in sexual activity: some just seem happy to be around other queer people, occasionally admiring the beautiful bodies around them (and don’t worry, we as a viewer get to do that too).
Scenes of intimacy and sex stand out in Dance of the 41. A lot of the film is shot in luxurious settings: Ignacio and his wife Amada’s home is ornately decorated, with vases and paintings on every surface and gold leaf aplenty. Though this space is colourful and rich, there is a certain sadness and an unavoidable dullness to the tone, especially when Amada and Ignacio try (and painfully fail) to be intimate together. We often hear sounds of people murmuring in the background of scenes at the house, reminding us that the married pair are being gossiped about and observed at all times. Later, though there is noise of people talking at the house on Calle de la Paz, those sounds recede when Ignacio and Eva kiss. This indulgent silence sits in direct opposition to the overwhelming buzz that lingers around the space that Amada and Ignacio share.
Using the queer sexual awakening film trope of naked wild water swimming (one trope I will never get tired of!), one scene shows Ignacio and Eva in a river. In contrast to the richly decorated but ultimately dull house, this river scene is brightly lit. Enchanced colours and flares of light give the scenery an almost dreamlike quality. In a later sex scene, the men make love at Eva’s, an ethereal green light placing them inside an improbable garden of Eden.
As mentioned, Ignacio behaves differently with his wife as with his gay compatriots, particularly Eva. Nowhere is this more apparent than when we see them kissing. When he kisses Amada, his eyes tend to stay open; when his lips are on Eva, they stay closed.
Gay male misogyny
The treatment of women in films about gay men has an unfortunately embarrassing record. If we look at a few of the best-known from recent years, let’s say Love, Simon, Boy Erased, Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name, only the last one of those passes the Bechdel test (that is, having two named female characters who speak to each other about something other than men) ー and that’s only because Elio’s mother speaks to her maid a few times. Although the logistics of a story revolving around two men doesn’t leave much space for female leads, the ignorant and mistreated girlfriend / wife / female love interest is an all too common trope in gay male oriented narratives. She’s cheated on, neglected, and only there to provide a counterpoint to the (often younger) male object of desire. Dance of the 41 is no exception to this trope.
Love, Simon didn’t pass the Bechdel test. Is it even a queer film? Read my thoughts here:
Call Me By Your Name passed the Bechdel test, but only just. Check out my reaction to this heartbreaking Italian romance:
Boy Erased also didn’t pass the Bechdel test. Read about my overall thoughts on the film below:
Moonlight is a sensational and sensitive take on black masculinity, but it didn’t pass the Bechdel test either.
Ignacio’s wife Amada (ironically meaning “loved” in Spanish) was the illegitimate daughter of Mexican president Porfirio Díaz. Though her mother was indigenous (and a soldier during the Mexican revolution), she was recognised as the president’s daughter and grew up in his and his wife’s household. Her dual identity and journey between two worlds of Mexican society could have made for a rich character exploration and a complex story. Instead, she is driven to madness by a gay husband who gaslights her, physically threatens her, and doesn’t respect her enough to communicate with her openly, even after he knows she’s discovered his secret.
Top Tip: This film features a lot of gloomy, candlelit rooms. Watch it in a dark room and turn your brightness up.
As well as being a misogynist, Ignacio is also at times a pretty unlikeable protagonist, and spends a lot of the film as just one of many smarmy posh men jostling for a better position in society. An unlikeable main character doesn’t necessarily make a film bad, but when we are led to root for his relationship with Eva, this is yet another confusing choice.
Because of the lack of historical evidence surrounding the events of the Dance of the Forty One, the film adaptation used a whole lot of artistic license. In any case, in a piece of narrative cinema, every choice is a conscious one. The film could have made Amada into more than just a one-dimensional trope just as easily as it created a queer relationship storyline for Ignacio.
Despite some off-putting character choices, this film’s aesthetic is undeniably and luxuriously gorgeous. The cinematography shines when the film explores moments of queerness. Getting ready for the infamous ball that created the film’s title and concept is an emotional scene: one attendee sees themself in their make-up, hair and finery and cries with joy. Over a solemn violin backdrop (Carlos Ayhllón’s ‘Feminidad’), Ignacio puts on earrings and make-up and we see only his face over a dark green background, smoke trailing seductively from his cigarette into the abyss. A candle lights his face from the front, the flickering flame showing red, tear-filled eyes: he’s nervous for his reconciliation with Eva and already planning their escape together. Closing his eyes and holding his hand to the jewellery on his face, he lifts his chin high in a final, tragic moment of self-acceptance. It is an act of queer ceremony.
Biggest Gay Mood: Pairing a twirly moustache with a hot pink lip.
During the dance itself, solemn romantic music builds to a dramatic crescendo. Though we know the soldiers are coming (again, we know the historical premise), we do get to indulge first: we spin alongside waltzing couples blurring in and out of focus, hypnotised by the dance. Even when the music fades and we see the soldiers’ approach, their marching footsteps invading the soundtrack, the dance continues inevitably. The elegance, the freedom, the joy, the laughter, the applause, the moment: perhaps it was all worth it in the end.
The round-up is filmed from above, anonymising the group (as was done by history) and showing their unity. This shot also provides a sense of distance and grandeur.
After being granted his freedom by his father-in-law the president as not to incur scandal, Ignacio returns to the house still in his ball finery, explicit queerness standing out against the ornate but dull house.
This final moment of juxtaposition of unashamed queerness against upper-class mundanity is representative of the film’s greatest strength. Unfortunately, this is also the setting for its greatest failure: as too many films revolving around gay men do, Dance of the 41 drastically fails its female characters (or rather ‘character’, because there is literally just one). Despite the seductive atmosphere of trailing cigarette smoke, the evocative and passionate sex scenes ー even the naked wild water swimming ー once you spot the misogyny, it’s pretty hard to unsee.