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DAMIEN MANIVEL: ISADORA'S CHILDREN/LES ENFANTS D'ISADORA (2019) - RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA 2020

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AGATHE BONITZER IN LES ENFANTS D'ISADORA

The preparation and witnessing of a dance fraught with tragic emotion

The modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), though her performance life was brief, was an immense cultural figure in France and America and beyond in the early twentieth century. In 1913 she lost her two young children, Deirdre Beatrice, seven, and Patrick Augustus, three, in a tragic accident when they were with their nanny and a runaway car submerged in the Seine and they drowned. Isadora was devastated, and for a time could barely move. After several weeks in Corfu with here two siblings and in Viareggio with the equally immense and controversial Eleanora Duse, Isadora's artistic response (but not till eight years later, in 1921) was to create "Mother," a dance expressing her feelings about the loss of her children. She composed the dance in Russia, where she had gone to live after the Revoution, to the music of Scriabin's Etude Op.2 No. 1 (played here by jérome Petit). Isadora's Children/Les Enfants d'Isadora recreates the staging of this dance at the present time, over a hundred years later, from multiple viewpoints.

This film's segmented action focuses on four women, a fledgling choreographer (Agathe Bonitzer) who learns of the dance from Duncan's memoir and searches it out in Laban's dance notation (seeing that in a film is a first in my experience); an Italian dance teacher and choreographer (Marika Rizzi)), who works together with a young student with Down's Syndrome, (Manon Carpentie); and a venerable member of the audience (seventy-one-year-old dancer and choreographer Elsa Wolliaston), herself a parent who has lost a child, but also a great figure of contemporary dance now long in retirement, who sees the dance performed and takes it home with her, deeply moved, to perform a few of its eloquent gestures in her room.

The first part focuses on Bonitzer, an alabaster redhead with prominent nose, always alone (though there is another body in her bed at night), assiduously studying the Laban notation, practicing the dance through October and November in an immaculate dance studio, first with only street sounds, then to Scriabin's solo piano. She makes notes. "Bercer une dernière fois" (cradle one last time), and in the dance, she is cradling empty space. The mood is contemplative and peaceful. Children playing and a parent with a child are glimpsed.

The dance is to be performed, a program shown us tells, at the Carré Magique in the town of Lannion, in Brittany, Wednesday, November 28, 2018. The next thirty minutes, though, consist of Rizzi teaching Manon, in the practice part of the hall. We learn that Rizzi herself has a son and daughter, both away in high school and beyond in other countries, and she misses them. The lessons seem elementary, and we get only that Manon says she is more relaxed in front of an audience, and Rizzi gets frustrated and lectures her that she must go slower and identify much more intensely with the feeling of the dance. "Cradle one last time." Manon listens to the Scriabin with headphones traveling home on a train.

This is rather a disappointment after the contemplative intro from Bonitzer, which leads us to expect something more exciting, surely, than these sketchy instructions, this sensitive but limited student. But Rizzi is a patient teacher, and Manivel is a patient observer. This only works if we slow. Way. Down. The best moment shows Manon performing alone, and we can absorb the Scriabin and its sublime melancholy - Chopin meets Rachmaninoff.

Then the performance, which we don't see: instead we look at faces in the audience - a good passage, again teaching us calm and contemplation. The last face is that of the only black lady we see, Elsa Wolliaston, with tears running down her cheeks. When it is over she leaves, walking with a cane, sometimes with considerable difficulty. Here is another dancer, then, like the late Merce Cunningham, doomed to end life hobbling. The last eighteen minutes are devoted to Elsa, Jamaican-American dancer, actor, and cultural figure, resident in France, and influential, from 1969, a figure in African dance developed in Europe in the Seventies. These minutes are drenched in pathos, and they are slow.

Some of the French critics were themselves quite moved by the film. But Arthur Champilou of aVoir-aLire.com believed its blurring of the line between documentary and fiction doesn't work, because "the line between the two is too thin this time" and "the spectator does not know with which eye to look at it." Moreover, he argues, the director "doesn't manage to develop a real plot around his subject," and does not "deal with issues other than those specific to the artist in the middle of his work." "Les Enfants d'Isadora is an unclassifiable film... in the wrong sense of the word. " Mathis Badin in Cahiers du Cinéma, as quoted on AlloCiné, simply says that "A certain explanatory heaviness - at times carried to the limits of tautology - dissipates the strangeness that has been the charm of the filmmaker's previous work."

In extenuation one may mention that Damien Manivel is himself a dancer. He was overwhelmed by the dance, its dramatic origins, and the living response to it, and could not be bothered to make a conventional film, either documentary or fictional. Jean-Christophe Ferrari may best describe what Manivel is doing, in ideal terms, when he says his aim is to make us feel "how a body, little by little, allows itself to be affected by the story it is charged with telling."

Manivel simultaneously touches on dance, through this one dance, from multiple angles - learning, mastery, performance, witness, and memory - and many viewers (and reviewers) have noticed how the film dwells on little disparate details, and is composed of them.

A minor, but still worthy, addition to the cinematic literature of dance, and modern dance in particular. But Isadora's Children will be simply much to slow for many viewers.

Isadora's Children/Les enfants d'Isadora, 84 mins., debuted at Locarno in Aug. 2019, where director Damien Manivel won the best directdor award, and showed in five other festivals. The French theatrical release Nov. 20, 2019, with an AlloCiné press rating of 3.6 (72%). It was also included in the March 2020 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York (co-sponsored by UniFrance and Film at Lincoln Center), for which it was meant to be reviewed for Filmleaf. But the series was cancelled before it was over due to the coronavirus pandemic, and this was one of the seven films I had yet to see when that happened. It is now being released in digital and on-demand through its distributor Shellac, currently offered by Film at Lincoln Center on Festival Scope, whereby it was screened for this review.

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