Director: Stéphanie Di Giusto
Screenwriters: Stéphanie Di Giusto with Sarah Thibau and Thomas Bidegain, based on a book by Giovanni Lista.
Country: France/Belgium/Czech Republic
Runtime: 108 mins.
Australian release date: 28 September 2017
Previewed at: Verona Cinemas, Paddington, Sydney, on 6 September 2017.
In the late 19th century, a young American woman, Loïe Fuller (Soko), became the toast of Paris during the Belle Époque, embraced by the artistic directors of both the Folies Bergère and the Paris Opera, for her exotic ‘Serpentine Dance.’ It created a spectacular image, as we see in Stéphanie Di Giusto’s debut feature The Dancer, because she danced and whirled encased in metres and metres of silk extended by long, hand-held rods and lit by a battery of lights. The sheer physicality of her performance, which required formidable strength and courage, enthralled audiences and was admired by the likes of filmmakers the Lumière Brothers, sculptor Auguste Rodin, artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and many more. And yet, today, she is largely forgotten. The Dancer is an attempt to explain what happened to this intriguing character and how she slipped from popular memory.
Loïe (nee Marie-Louise Fuller) fled to New York to join her estranged, teetotaler mother after the untimely death of her gold-prospecting father in the American West. She wanted to be an actress but developed a passion for dance after a ‘wardrobe malfunction,’ getting tangled in an oversized costume during a performance, and thus stumbling upon her unique style - the ‘electric fairy’ was borne. Learning that she couldn’t patent her creation and designs in the USA, Fuller headed for France where she was wooed by the ether-sniffing Count Louis d’Orsay (Gaspard Ulliel), who became her most ardent supporter and fan. She also struck up a close relationship with Isadora Duncan (Johnny Depp’s daughter, Lily-Rose Depp) which later, because of Fuller’s unrequited love for Duncan, developed into bitter rivalry and betrayal. In an ironic twist of fate, Fuller is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery, only 100 metres from Isadora Duncan. Her tomb is overgrown whereas Duncan’s is magnificently well kept.
The Dancer looks magnificent but that’s about as far as it goes. Without doubt Fuller was an exhilarating figure but the film’s script lacks the force to bring the story of this rebellious, creative young woman into the open. Despite frequent shots of her designing her choreography, costume, sets and lighting, and rehearsing, the passion that the real Fuller must have felt for her work doesn’t come through in Soko’s performance. We see it but we never really feel it. Instead, the clash between her and Duncan becomes the bigger story. The screenwriters have also played with the facts of Fuller’s story (the Count, for example, is fictitious) but, to be fair, Di Giusto has said that, “There was never [a] question of writing a biopic.” Nevertheless, one wonders why she made that decision. This isn’t like Pablo Larraín’s brilliant impression of the eponymous poet in Neruda; it feels more like a straight biography because we follow Fuller from her youth through to the end of her career. The saving grace of the film is composer Max Richter’s fine take on Vivaldi (augmented by Warren Ellis and Nick Cave’s contribution) in the score and Benôit Debie’s equally fine cinematography. Yes, The Dancer was nominated for a swathe of César and Lumière awards but it was only Anäis Romand who walked away with Best Costume Design, which goes to show that sometimes looks are everything. You can understand the judges’ decision – there’s a lot going on on the surface of this movie but very little depth.