'Isadora's Children' ('Les Enfants d'Isadora'): Film Review | Locarno 2019

Courtesy of Locarno Film Festival
Terpsichorean triptych takes measured steps to a satisfying finale.

Damien Manivel's dance-themed fourth feature was awarded the best director prize at the long-running Swiss festival.

Dancer-turned-filmmaker Damien Manivel continues a graceful ascent to international prominence with his fourth feature, Isadora's Children, winner of the best director prize at the Locarno International Film Festival. Exploring the world of ballet via a three-part structure focusing first on a choreographer, then on a performer and her teacher, and finally on a spectator, it's an unassuming and delicate work which demands but ultimately repays close attention. Guaranteed further festival exposure following the high-profile Swiss win, the Brittany-set France-South Korea co-production could connect with older, dance-oriented audiences in France and further afield.

Manivel made quiet waves with his 2014 debut A Young Poet and then gained wider recognition after Le Parc premiered in the ACID section at Cannes in 2016. He then teamed with Japanese director Kohei Igarashi for 2017's The Night I Swam, which, like its predecessors, played out a slim narrative over 70-something minutes. Isadora's Children, co-funded by the Cinema Project of South Korea's Jeonju International Film Festival, certainly takes its own sweet time over the course of its 84 minutes, the first 26 of which comprise the opening and least eventful of the three sections.

This follows a choreographer in her twenties (Agathe Bonitzer) preparing to stage dance legend Isadora Duncan's 1921 piece "Mother." The choreographer reads that the work was created out of maternal grief, Duncan having lost her two young children eight years earlier — they drowned in the river Seine during an automobile accident. As the title implies, Duncan is very much the presiding spirit here, her "children" being not just biological descendants but all who follow in her wide creative wake.

The only actual child on view is Manon Carpentier, who is — with her teacher Marika Rizzi (both in effect "playing" themselves) — the focus of the film's second and longest section. No mention is made of why a junior dancer should be selected to perform what is by definition a piece for a grown-up person; this is presented as a fait accompli. Manivel constructs this half-hour segment as as a kind of fly-on-the-wall documentary, emphasizing the warm and productive bond between patient tutor and her assiduous student.

While he shows us first the choreographer and then Manon going through the movements of "Mother," the actual performance (in Carre Magique, a real venue in Lannion, Brittany) takes place offscreen. Instead, Noe Bach's camera roves slowly around the faces of rapt audience members, rather in the style of Abbas Kiarostami's Shirin, before finally settling on one elderly lady visibly moved by the experience.

This woman, played by acclaimed, veteran American dancer Elsa Wolliaston — resident in Paris for half a century, and star of Manivel's 2010 short La Dame au chien — then moves center stage for the dialogue-light closing section. We follow this dignified senior citizen back home through empty streets to the remote suburbs, stopping off on the way for a late supper. Each of her steps — aided by a medical walking stick — involves considerable effort, and Manivel is palpably fascinated by how this ungainly body navigates physical space.

Once she has finally made it back to her apartment, the exhausted lady lights a candle in front of a photograph of (presumably) her dead son, then she silently and quite beautifully re-enacts movements from the performance she witnessed earlier in the evening. In this way Manivel and his script collaborator Julien Dieudonne make explicit the chains of creativity and inspiration which connect the originators of art works to their ultimate recipients and beneficiaries, decades or even centuries down the line. It's an ephemeral but eternal line of emotional transmission, which here (as in The Hours) happens to be an exclusively distaff affair, albeit one shaped and presented by male hands.

While the film underlines what a complex and arduous art form ballet truly is — on several occasions we glimpse the astonishingly intricate hieroglyphics that make up dance notation — Isadora's Children itself is a simple enough idea, delivered in an uninflected, straightforward manner. Manon and Wolliaston's anonymous character make for a pair of contrasting, engaging screen presences; they add crucial touches of warmth to what at times feels like a somewhat austere, academic, detached, very Gallic exercise in exquisite artistic contemplation.

Production company: MLD Films
Cast: Agathe Bonitzer, Manon Carpentier, Marika Rizzi, Elsa Wolliaston
Director: Damien Manivel
Screenwriters: Julien Dieudonne, Damien Manivel
Producers: Martin Bertier, Damien Manivel
Cinematographer: Noe Bach
Editor: Dounia Sichov
Venue: Locarno International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Shellac, Paris

In French
84 minutes