The Dancer: Loïe Fuller from diamond in the rough to dazzling jewel
by Bénédicte Prot
- CANNES 2016: In her debut feature film, Stéphanie Di Giusto brings us an eye-opening experience with striking skill
If, in the programme of the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, The Dancer [+see also:
film profile] didn’t have the promise of a certain Caméra d’Or hanging over it, you’d find it hard to believe that it’s the debut feature film of Stéphanie Di Giusto, and not only because she has managed to bring together such a glittering troupe of actors. Even though the American prologue to the film has something unpleasantly course about it that is not all that charming – like the heroine of the film, Marie-Louise (aka Loïe) Fuller (Soko), who became an ‘icon of the Belle Epoque’ praised by Rodin, Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as Pierre and Marie Curie, to name but a few –, it already shows us a small scrap of grace in the relationship between this young girl and her father, the former of which we meet when she is dragged through the dirt, and in the ardour with which she reads the story of the captivating Salomé aloud and does pages and pages of sketches whilst sitting in the wild grass. The elegance of the visual omission in the scene in which she discovers the lifeless body of her beloved father is the first resounding confirmation that here we’re dealing with a director with perfect control over her subject matter and direction, all the more so as her surprising reserve has something mimetic about it that corresponds to the way in which our heroine behaves.
It’s on the other side of the Atlantic, in Paris, that this diamond in the rough starts to shine, a diamond who we find it hard to love at first, and who seems to accept her humiliation whilst never giving an inch when it comes to her creations – which give the impression of passing fancies, with her being so incomprehensibly stubborn. In the city of the sizzling artistic avant-garde, this strange dance born from clumsiness, which makes the light veils of material vigorously shaken by Loïe’s strong arms seem at times like a bird of paradise, at times like a marvellous corolla, is finally given the stage it deserves, for audiences back in the day and viewers of the film. The latter is even more amazed to see the physical sacrifice of the artist to give her audience her literally dazzling performances that leave them transfixed as they light up the stage, her constant endeavour to use the technical progress of the industrial age to her best advantage, her rigidity as an artist, an inventor of patented devices and the head of a company – at a time when very few women had the opportunity to rise to fame in such a way (a fortiori dancers!). Like the audience watching Loïe Fuller’s performances, here we’re aware that we’re seeing something unique, extraordinary and totally new, especially as Fuller’s dancing was never documented on film.
The great quality of this totally controlled biographical film, which is very clearly the fruit of meticulous research, is that quite rightly, Di Giusto, knowing her subject inside out, does not limit herself to giving us a ‘her life, her work’ style account of Loïe Fuller, but makes a decision, notably to portray without overly insisting either on the homosexuality of the robust dancer through the character of her assistant, played by Mélanie Thierry, her chastely sensual friendship with the helpless Louis Dorsay (Gaspard Ulliel) and her ambiguous relationship built on rivalry and attraction with the delightful and mischievous Isadora Duncan (Lily-Rose Depp), for whom dance is something natural that seems to come to her effortlessly and glorifies the body laid bare, that is, an art that is worlds apart from the one practised by Loïe. The director does neat justice to the phrase used by Mallarmé to describe Fuller: "the intoxication of art and industrial accomplishment". Being sold internationally by Wild Bunch, The Dancer is an intelligent and informed piece of work that is impeccably made and gives the viewer the gift of taking them on a marvellous journey.
(Translated from French)