Film review: The Dancer

Belle Époque dance innovator Loïe Fuller’s gruelling rise to fame and rivalry with Isadora Duncan is intelligently explored in this highly accomplished biopic showing as part of the French Film Festival in Adelaide.

Mar 23, 2017, updated Mar 23, 2017

Despite Loïe Fuller’s swirling fabrics becoming one of the iconic images of Art Nouveau, her name is not as well remembered in the history of dance as that of her contemporary and rival, Isadora Duncan.

First-time director Stéphanie Di Giusto helps to redress that with The Dancer (La Danseuse) – a thoughtful exploration of the life of a gifted and dedicated artist who was ill-equipped for the pressures and jealousies that accompany fame.

The film begins on a farm in the American Midwest in the late 1800s where Fuller (played by singer-actress Soko) is living with her alcoholic father (Denis Ménochet). Following his sudden death, she moves to New York to try her hand at acting.

As a result of a wardrobe malfunction while on stage, Fuller is struck by inspiration and develops an avant-garde dance routine involving long, flowing garments and coloured lights.

It is a visual sensation, and success in New York – coupled with an encounter with ether-sniffing Count Louis Dorsay (Gaspard Ulliel) and the wad of $100 bills he leaves lying around – sends her to France. After landing in Paris, Loïe manages to catch the eye of Folies Bergère manager Marchand (François Damiens), who puts her on stage at the famous nightclub.

With the loyal support of Marchand’s assistant Gabrielle (Mélanie Thierry), Fuller creates increasingly spectacular routines involving swirling fabric and coloured lights, wowing the Folies crowd with her revolutionary performances. Her star continues to rise in Paris but the seeds of her downfall are sown when she befriends ambitious young dancer Isadora Duncan (Lily-Rose Depp).

This film is an innovative take on the biopic since it attempts to do more than merely re-create the career highlights of an acclaimed artist. This is also an exploration of the challenges of dedicating a life to art and the difficulties presented by fame and artistic rivalry.

Soko is wonderful in her portrayal of Fuller as a quiet and humble artist, gnawed at by insecurity yet incredibly driven and willing to endure serious pain in order to perform her physically demanding routines.

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This is a beautiful and intelligent film but the show-stealer is unquestionably Benoît Debie’s cinematography, particularly during Fuller’s on-stage dance routines. These ethereal scenes of whirling fabric and coloured light effects are simply breath-taking.

Anyone fascinated by the Belle Époque, the history of dance, or stories of artists devoted to their creative vision will be swept away by this stunning recreation of the art and life of Loïe Fuller.

The Dancer is showing at Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas as part of the French Film Festival, which begins in Adelaide on March 30 and continues until April 23. See session times here.

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