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LOCARNO 2019 Competition

Damien Manivel • Director of Isadora’s Children

"I try to always look at the actors as if they were dancing"


- French director Damien Manivel tells us about his latest film Isadora’s Children, screening in International Competition in Locarno

Damien Manivel  • Director of Isadora’s Children
(© Ottavia Bossello)

Isadora's Children [+see also:
film review
interview: Damien Manivel
film profile
, the latest film from French director Damien Manivel, brings us with tenderness and precision into the universe of dancer Isadora Duncan, an homage to dance that is liberated from the elitism that too often stifles it. On the occasion of its premiere at the Locarno Film Festival, which elicited a strong emotional response in the audience, we met up with the director to discuss the influence that his training as a dancer has on his filmmaking.

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Cineuropa: Why did you choose the character of Isadora Duncan, and more particularly her solo piece "Mother", as your first direct foray into the world of dance?
Damien Manivel:
I chose the story of Isadora Duncan as a guiding thread through my film, but I also have the feeling that she is the one who chose me to tell her story and make this film. It happened by chance during an improvisation with actor Agathe Bonitzer. We were right in the middle of an improvisation when she made a very slow gesture with her hand and her arm, on the floor, and a friend who’s a choreographer and who was present at the time told me that this gesture reminded her of Isadora Duncan’s solo piece “Mother”. I asked her to tell me the story. It really touched me, and I thought, I’ve found my film, I’ve found its source. Then I really dived into the character of Isadora Duncan, into her biography, into the pictures of her, and I was very moved and inspired by her life. She is someone who inspires me as a woman, but even more so as an artist: her relation to art, her excessiveness, and the fact that she considers art to be a very powerful thing. It’s a rare and anachronistic attitude today. Duncan says: “art is vital”. This statement touches me. 

How do you think that your training as a dancer affects your sensitivity as a director?
I stopped dancing quite a long time ago, but I still have some memories, some sensations. And I think about it a lot because it is my first passion, before cinema. To give you an honest answer, I think it affects the way I look at people. I try to always look at the actors as if they were dancing. Even if I see a couple walking hand in hand, in the small screen of my camera I imagine that they are dancing. This is how I feel an emotion, filming very simple things while telling myself that dance, that its power, is present everywhere.

Did you ever wonder, outside of the shoot, whether those who have no knowledge of contemporary dance could completely adhere to the film’s aesthetic?
I think that there is absolutely no issue in that regard. The theme of my film is universal and I even believe that it can teach something to those who do not come from that world. Contemporary dance is often perceived as being a little difficult to approach. We feel like we don’t understand, like we’re a bit stupid. I think that to film goes in the opposite direction, it invites the viewer to understand what it means to research a danse, how specific gestures can carry an emotion. A friend who saw the film told me, “I didn’t know anything about dance, and I think I might have understood something.” It pleased me because it is, in a way, what I am trying to achieve. I think it’s a shame that some people think that dance is far away from them. We are all capable of dancing.

Why this decision to structure the film in three parts, and how did you choose the four main actors?
When I discovered the solo piece "Mother", I very quickly wanted to have it go through different bodies, different ages, but also different stories. In fact, I wanted the film itself to be a gesture of transmission. I find very beautiful the fact that cinema can transfer energy from one person to another. It’s very important. Then, as I say in the film, dance does not belong to anybody. Therefore, in my film, I wanted to cast people who were very different from each other, even distant from the world of dance. It’s my way of saying: no matter your age or your story, dance belongs to you.

I bumped into Agathe one evening and I immediately found her very inspiring, very magnetic. Manon [Carpentier], I saw her in a show in Avignon, she’s a professional actress. I liked her a lot, I found her very creative and self-assured. Elsa [Wolliaston], I’ve known her for ten years, we made a short film together. And Marika [Rizzi], I’ve known her for ten years as well. I had them all in mind, and I wanted to make a film with them. I don’t work with the actors before the shoot. I’d say we did more dance work than acting work. I learned to know them, to direct them, to work with them by watching them dance.

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(Translated from French)

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