The Dancer is a biographical drama based on the life of avant garde performer Loie Fuller, who exerted an enormous influence over the development of dance and theatrical lighting. It also pulls in noted ballet performer Isadora Duncan, whose career Fuller helped to launch. Sadly director and co-writer Stéphanie Di Giusto has taken considerable liberties with the facts, resulting in a film that – while dramatically effective in isolation – largely travesties Fuller’s life. It re-arranges and re-works her career to suit a more traditional and commercially-friendly narrative. Most egregiously of all, it takes a relatively famous lesbian and gives her an ether-sniffing aristocrat boyfriend instead.
That it all a tremendous shame, because in almost every other respect The Dancer is a beautiful and impressive piece of filmmaking. It looks outstanding, combining not only effective costumes and production design but also some stunning cinematography by Benoît Debie. Loie Fuller’s iconic dance routines are reproduced very effectively, to the point of seeming near-hypnotic when they fill the screen.
The film’s musical score is pleasingly diverse, combining classical music with contemporary artists including Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It operates as a sort of collage, and while the style and melody change dramatically from scene to scene it always feels well suited to the action and transitions perfectly from one artist to the other.
Musician turned actor Soko is very impressive in the lead role. Her version of Fuller is powerfully driven towards her art, yet remains a brittle woman loaded with self-doubt and deep-seeded fears. There is a lot of complexity going on in the performance, which makes for a tremendously interesting watch. Lily-Rose Depp is sadly much less entrancing as Isadora Duncan, playing the role quite superficially. She is not helped by a screenplay that portrays Duncan as a fame-hungry and manipulative egotist; one willing to seduce anyone that may help her become famous, and steamrolling anyone that she sees as an obstacle. There is merit in the way in which Duncan and Fuller’s personalities collide – a pure artist having to negotiate with a pure star – however a little more subtlety in Duncan’s character would have enhanced this aspect enormously.
Mélanie Thierry is the film’s other great standout as Gabrielle Bloch, a Folies Bergere stage manager that assists her in developing her act in Paris. She is a picture of disappointment and weary patience: with Fuller’s own manic episodes, with Duncan’s prima donna manipulations, with the constant arguments over budgets, workplace safety and promotion. Thierry’s is a very subtle, underplayed performance, but is arguably the most impressive in the whole film. There is also an immediate close relationship between Gabrielle and Fuller. By the end of the film it feels positively romantic, and yet even at the end Di Giusto refuses to directly reference Fuller’s sexuality. It is a deep shame.
The Dancer will be a frustrating experience for pre-existing fans of Loie Fuller; more so the more they know her life story. If you can separate your knowledge of the real-life woman, however, there is a sumptuous and rich viewing experience to be had. If Di Giusto had simply taken inspiration from Fuller and crafting an entirely original story, I suspect The Dancer would be a very strong film indeed.
The Dancer is playing in Australian cinemas from 6 March as part of the Alliance Française French Film Festival. Click here for more information and local session times.