Review: La danseuse (2016)

La danseuse (2016)

Directed by: Stephanie Di Giusto | 108 minutes | biography, drama, music | Actors: Soko, Gaspard Ulliel, Mélanie Thierry, Lily-Rose Depp, François Damiens, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Amanda Plummer, Denis Ménochet, Charlie Morgan, Tamzin Merchant, William Houston, Bert Haelvoet, Camille Rutherford

What a photo can do… When Stéphanie Di Giusto, who made a career in advertising and as a director of video clips, saw a black and white photo of the legendary American-French dancer Loïe Fuller, her imagination ran wild. Fuller was not your typical dancer; she was relatively solidly built and muscular and had a dance style all her own. By swinging dynamically with her exuberant skirts, cloths and ribbons and by making inventive use of colored light and mirrors, she proved to be a true inspirer and pioneer. But one that, according to Di Giusto, has been somewhat forgotten. And it is due for rehabilitation, in the form of a feature film. For no less than three years she brooded on a film script, and with the support of Thomas Bidegain (who has two Césars on the mantelpiece, for ‘Un prophète’ (2009) and ‘De rouille et d’os’ (2012), both directed by Jacques Audiard) she came up with the story of ‘La danseuse’ (2016).

There is something special about this film. In style, form, storylines and character development, ‘La danseuse’ screams out to be a biopic. However, Di Giusto and Bidegain have twisted the facts so firmly that it should be seen as pure fiction. Yes, Fuller was born in America, and yes, around 1900 she was a landmark in Paris with her revolutionary dance style. In 1902 she also helped her equally legendary colleague Isadora Duncan on her way in her career. But that’s where the similarities with reality end.

In ‘La danseuse’, Fuller (singer-songwriter Stéphanie Sokolinski, better known in her native France by her stage name ‘Soko’) grows up in the Wild West of the US, where she lives with her French father Ruben (Denis Ménochet). One day in 1892 he is shot dead by a band of outlaws and Loïe is forced to leave for her strict mother Lili (Amanda Plummer) in New York. Loïe has always dreamed of a career as an actress and in The Big Apple she gets the chance to prove herself on stage. However, she discovers that she has more talent for dance and soon she has devised her own intermission act, complete with ribbons and wide skirts.

Then she meets Brooklyn-based, ether-sniffing French aristocrat Louis Dorsay (Gaspard Ulliel), who convinces her that she will receive much more appreciation for her innovative dance style in Paris than in New York. Once in France, she quickly attracts the attention of Marchand (François Damiens), the manager of the legendary theater Folies Bergère. With the help of Marchand’s right-hand man Gabriëlle (Mélanie Thierry), Loïe puts together a colorful and dynamic show spectacle that is unparalleled. It is also here that she meets Isadora Duncan (Lily-Rose Depp, daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis), a gifted, more classical dance talent. She appears to be willing to go far to claim her place in the limelight.

Soko is amazing in her role as Loïe Fuller, full of energy and strength. Her dance scenes – all of which she performed herself – are spectacularly portrayed and thanks to Soko’s full dedication we also see how exhausting this dance style is and how Fuller has devoted herself on stage all these years. The contrast with Lily-Rose Depp, for whom a body double was used in the dance scenes, who has a much more subdued style, is enormous. Incidentally, that is not necessarily due to Depp, who is a natural for the camera (how could it be otherwise with her parents…!?). Mélanie Thierry also plays a fine role; we would have liked to see more of her.

No matter how good the actors appear, ‘La danseuse’ remains a film with flaws. This is not due to the stylish camera work, in which subtle odes to artists from the late nineteenth century are hidden, nor to the beautiful soundtrack. It is mainly the script that has been made up together that does not come out well. When so much artistic freedom has been taken, you expect at least a quirky and original interpretation of the traditional biopic. But ‘La danseuse’ follows the well-trodden paths of the genre very closely. A creative mind like Loïe Fuller really deserves a film as revolutionary as she is.

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