Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 17, 2017 2:54 pm 
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(In the 2017 NYC Rendez-Vous with French Cinema)

Biopic of a turn-of-the-century dance innovator is showy, but fails to engage

Stéphanie Di Giusto's directorial debut is a lush but routine biopic. Its subject is a turn-of-the-century American dancer and theatrical staging pioneer known as Loïe Fuller, who took her talents to Paris. She wowed theatergoers with her dramatically swirled drapery and advanced use of mirrors and colored light. After a struggle for acceptance of her unusual routine, her talents were showcased at the Folies Bergère and briefly the Paris Opera. She helped other performers including the now more famous Isadora Duncan.

La danseuse begins with a long, unnecessary introduction depicting the protagonist's early life in America. This passage shows her past to have been exotic in French terms, with its trappings of a Western, her drunken father and bossy mother and her habit of carrying around a pistol. But none of this seems relevant later except to learn she was a child actress before conceiving more elaborate and unconventional performances and stagings.

As Fuller, we get the 100% commitment of Soko, who played the hypnosis subject of Alice Wincour's moody, stylized Augustine, with Vincent Lindon. Names in the cast include Gaspard Ulliel as the decadent Conte d'Orsay (an invented character, which he plays as basically a less interesting version of his Saint Laurent lead); Mélanie Thierry as the dancer's beautiful manager, collaborator and lover Gabrielle Bloch; François Damiens as director of the Folies Bergère, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing as the Paris Opera boss, Christopher Plummer's daughter Amanda as Fuller's temperance crusader mother, and Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paridis's daughter Lily-Rose Depp as Isadora Duncan. The Conte d'Orsay is Fuller's involuntary Maecenas and would-be lover, who's hooked on ether, a period drug in this very period movie. Fuller flourished in the Nineties and early twentieth century. Perhaps the greatest success of this ho-hum effort is the way it evokes the tastes of its times - for such things as this cloth-swirling show, and for young women in diaphanous, vaguely classical drapery running around in the woods.

Di Giusto's film, written in collaboration with Jacques Audiard's writer Thomas Bidegain, takes various liberties, jazzing up lesbian relationships, adding a fictitious character in the Count, and dwelling so much on Loïe's muscle pains and eye trouble she comes to seem as much a patient as a performer. Swirling the gauzy materials around is shown to be a huge physical effort, sometimes leading to exhaustion. It hurts! What's wrong with her eyes - severely damaged apparently by the bright lights? We never really learn, but she spends the last third of the labored film putting in eye drops and wearing round sunglasses. Isabella Duncan, with Lily-Rose Depp lacking the authority to play such a future diva, is presented ambiguously. At some moments it seems we're supposed to hate her for seeming about to steal Loïe Fuller's fire. At others they seem not only friendly collaborators but erstwhile lesbian lovers. Loïe's off-and-on affair with the Conte d'Orsay has been strenuously criticized in queer circles for falsifying by diluting her pioneering open homosexuality.

Loïe's personality is otherwise unclear, seen as a mix of fiercely ambitious, physically determined, and insecure. She keeps saying she is not a dancer. And indeed her "flame" performance, in one scene impressively recreated here, is more playing with cloth and lightening than dancing in the classical sense. With all the effort, suffering, mood swings, and physical problems, Loïe Fuller still doesn't quite emerge as a real person. Even the final sequence, a fraught long-awaited debut at the Paris Opera, is ambiguous. It seems Loïe is barely able to go on, and as staged her performance, all in white instead of with the colors, seems lackluster, a disaster ending in collapse. Then she goes out to receive a standing ovation. Maybe that's how it actually was. But despite the impressive mise-en-scène, cast dotted with notables, and collaboration in the writing from Thomas Bideguin, Di Giusto has not produced a coherent or solidly enjoyable film.

The Dancer/La danseuse, 109 mins., debuted at Cannes may 2016; over a dozen other festivals, including the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema of FSLC and UniFrance (1-12 Mar. 2017), as part of which it was screened for this review. The French theatrical release 28 Sept. 2016 led to mixed reviews (AlloCiné press rating a fair 3.4). Most critics admired the dedicated performance of Soko; some noted the biopic conventionality.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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