Previously lauded for her work on video installations for fashion shows, director Stephanie Di Giusto decided to make her first feature film after seeing a photograph of dancer Loïe Fuller, mother of the avant-garde dance movement, completely engulfed in swirling fabric.
Fascinated by the idea of a woman who made herself famous by concealing herself, Di Giusto spent three years researching Fuller’s life and co-writing (with Sarah Thibau and Thomas Bidegain) an astute and intelligent screenplay that bristles with the conflict of true art versus pursuit of celebrity.
Chock full of eye-sizzling imagery (thanks to the exquisite aesthetics of cinematographer Benoît Debie), The Dancer opens with an exhausted Fuller (perfectly portrayed by French musician/actor Soko) being carried from the stage. She is wrapped inside her voluminous costume, surrounded by clamouring journalists and photographers.
Like a visual elastic band, this glossy world of gold, white and chocolatey brown snaps back to a flatly-rendered cattle ranch where a trussed-up cow is being dragged through mud while a teenage Fuller looks on.
Later, we see Fuller reciting (pertinently) passages from Wilde’s Salomé while striding round cattle pens, witnessing the untimely death of her father at the hands of whip-cracking, yeeha outlaws (a complete fabrication but who cares – the visual spectacle of the muted blue/grey landscape being literally shot with colour as red water spurts from the bullet holes in the outdoor bathtub more than makes up for the factual liberties), working like a trooper to get her revolutionary dance sequence seen on stage, and finally stealing money from her cash-heavy friend, Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), and hot-footing it off to France where she hopes her ideas will be better appreciated.
Her bull-headed determination and unswerving dedication to her art see her right and she becomes the darling of the Folies Bergère, pushing herself and technology to near-impossible limits in order to create ever-more-dazzling performances.
Fuller’s reluctance to appear in public (except when she is rendered invisible inside swathes of silk) is contrasted to her more famous contemporary and nemesis Isadora Duncan (Lily-Rose Depp), who’s lazy about training but loves to be adored and mercilessly uses Fuller as a springboard for her own career.
How much truth there is in this portrayal of their relationship is uncertain but it embodies the question at the heart of the film: has true art become obscured by our obsession with fame?
Soko plays the stroppy, self-certain yet somehow sweetly vulnerable Fuller to great effect (supported by a mesmerising Ulliel as Louis and a powerfully understated Mélanie Thierry as Soko’s right-hand woman, Gabrielle), while Depp inhabits the role of Duncan with an easy languor far beyond her 16 years.
The Dancer is no flouncy, frilly cancan, high-kicking for cheap thrills; it’s a long-drawn balletic portrayal, slow-burning its way into our consciousness, utterly committed to its art.
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