'The Dancer' ('La Danseuse'): Cannes Review

The Dancer Still - H 2016
Courtesy of Wild Bunch Distribution
Pretty but vapid.

Lily-Rose Depp and French musician-actress Soko star in a biopic of Belle Epoque dancer Loie Fuller.

The once world-renowned but now relatively obscure Belle Epoque dancer Loie Fuller (1862-1928), formerly the toast of the Folies Bergere, gets the full biopic treatment in The Dancer (La Danseuse), an airy, prettily accoutered but essentially vapid feature debut for writer-director Stephanie De Giusto.

Tabloid interest is pretty much guaranteed in this otherwise fairly inconsequential costume drama by its casting: Fuller herself is played by indie-musician-turned-actor Soko (star of Alice Winocour’s Augustine), who until recently was dating Kristen Stewart (they allegedly split up just before the Cannes Film Festival). Meanwhile, Lily-Rose Depp, the daughter of Vanessa Paradis and Johnny Depp, adds further decorative value, if not a whole lot in terms of acting ability, as Fuller’s discovery Isadora Duncan, presented here as a manipulative, All About Eve-style schemer. Although many right-minded observers will welcome a chance to learn something about this intriguing historical figure, and applaud the all-too-rare financing of a film with a female protagonist, directed by a woman to boot, cynics might wonder if it would have quite such a prominent slot in the Cannes program (in Un Certain Regard) were it not for its cast and the backing of powerful sales agent Wild Bunch.

Taking a largely elliptical if chronological approach to the known facts of Fuller’s life, the story begins in the American West (France’s Vercors region serves as a credible double) where young Loie, then known as Marie-Louise Fuller, lives a near feral existence with her father Ruben (Denis Menochet), a rodeo rider. Shy and withdrawn, and constantly sketching in her notebook or secretly rehearsing speeches from Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, Marie-Louise hides behind her mane of matted hair. Certainly, she doesn’t seem like likely material for a future superstar. But when Ruben is shot by persons unknown (signified with a striking shot of bloody water running out of a freestanding bathtub in the middle of a field), Marie-Louise heads East to seek her fortune.

First she stops in Brooklyn to seek shelter with her mother Lily (Amanda Plummer), a fervent, black-clad Temperance Movement supporter who gives Marie-Louise her first choppy bob, a haircut as ahead of its time as the moves Marie-Louise dreams of busting out on stage someday.

While in New York, our heroine, who by this time has renamed herself Loie and is already tinkering with the voluminous flowing dresses that would be her trademark, meets louche French aristocrat Louis (foxy-in-every-sense Gaspard Ulliel, star of the Bertrand Bonello biopic Saint Laurent). Despite the fact that he’s always huffing ether, and smirking over women’s petticoats, Louis (who, according to the press notes, is a composite of various historical figures) becomes one of the more sympathetic figures in the story. Forgiving Loie for stealing the dollars that pay her way to Paris, once he shows up in town as well he seemingly understands her genius and generously lets her make use of his picturesque estate so she can establish a modern-dance school of sorts.

There she drills her tunic-clad corps de ballet in new movements and shapes, creating a style of choreography that was truly revolutionary, although Fuller’s place in the history of dance is much better illuminated by a glance at her Wikipedia page than by watching this. The Dancer itself, despite its title, isn’t really all that interested in dancing as such. Di Giusto and her colleagues have a go at recreating Fuller’s signature serpentine dance, a complicated stage spectacle that she transferred from the Folies to the Opera Ballet which involved many meters of silk, mirrors, platforms and special lighting techniques, some of which she patented herself. But vexingly, when the key moment comes to see her perform the show, the editing cuts the performance into jagged little chunks, like a modern-day pop video.

More unintentionally humorous editing is deployed elsewhere to try to trick viewers into thinking Depp and not a dancing double is executing the jetes and pirouettes Duncan performs later. It’s the kind of slice-and-dice use of close-ups and long shots that makes one appreciate how convincingly deployed visual effects were in Black Swan to make it look like Natalie Portman could really dance. Elsewhere, no body double is obviously used for the scene where Loie and Isadora make out in a garden. DP Benoit Debie lights the scene with a dreamy softness that miraculously has an erotic charge without feeling entirely tawdry. All in all, the expensive production values — deploying lush costumes by Anais Romand and a well-chosen selection of pre-existing music from the likes of Max Richter and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis — make this a far more enjoyable experience than it ought to be.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production companies: A Productions du Tresor production, in co-production with Wild Bunch, Or
ange Studio, Les Films du Fleuve, Sirena Film, Voo et Be TV, RTBF (Television Belge), in association with Cofinova 12, A Plus Image 6, Palatine Etoile 13
Cast: Soko, Gaspard Ulliel, Melanie Thierry, Lily-Rose Depp, Francois Damiens
Director: Stephanie Di Giusto
Screenwriters: Stephanie Di Giusto, Sarah Thibau, Thomas Bidegain, based on the novel
Loie Fuller, danseuse de la Belle Epoque by Giovanni Lista
Producers: Alain Attal
Director of photography: Benoit Debie
Production designer: Carlos Conti
Costume designer: Anais Romand
Editor: Geraldine Mangenot
Music supervisor: Emmanuel Ferrier
Casting: Pascale Beraud
Sales: Wild Bunch

Not rated, 111 minutes