The Dancer, dir. Stéphanie di Giusto│Marie-Louise Fuller never really fitted anywhere. As a cattle girl in America with her French father, she spent her time drawing and rehearsing Salomé. Later, as an artist, she refused to rely on over-exposure or advances from powerful men to reach recognition. Based on a true story, Stéphanie di Giusto’s debut feature finds a more than suitable outlet and support in French singer SOKO, who offers her own captivating oddity and intensity to Fuller. Unfortunately, this complex character and committed performance find themselves contained by an overblown melodrama and dulled by clichéd shortcuts and a tedious rhythm.
Biopics following a character’s rise to power or fame are, more often than not, dotted with multiple exhilarating plot twists, and so is this film. Nevertheless, its most intriguing point is in fact its second triggering element, that is, when Fuller discovers her ambition to become a dancer. As a child, she had always dreamt of singing at the opera, but an accident while acting in a very modest play in New York was the inspiration behind her now famous serpentine dance. Fuller had never thought of becoming a dancer, but she made the most out of her discovery to finally walk on the stage of the Opéra de Paris, although not as an actress. Di Giusto, however, fails at translating the strangeness of this turn of events and falls into the irrational. As Fuller begins designing dresses and training, her actions suddenly seem rehearsed and not spontaneous, undoing all previous attempts at realism. Like many other biopics, La Danseuse takes the easier route of blunt admiration at the detriment of insight into the character’s artistic sensibility.
On the other hand, Fuller’s sentimental life is repeatedly given centre stage, but only to offer sensual scenes rather than to reveal anything about her personality or to advance the plot. In New York, Frenchman Comte Louis Dorsay, as seems common for rich men in 19th century period films, falls for the hard-to-get young girl. Yet their romance is inexistent: Fuller rejects him constantly and Louis is therefore just a stand-in for vice and deception, his semblance of depth suggested by drug abuse and piercing eyes. Fuller will only care for him once another lover will have broken her heart and stolen her glory. In a Petra von Kant-like twist, a young, sensual and mysterious girl, Isadora, appears dancing spontaneously around Louis’ house where Fuller is working and seduces her, before abandoning her. While the chemistry between the two actresses is convincing, Isadora is too superficial, as well as superficially drawn, and leaves too quickly to justify Fuller’s distress and her jeopardizing her career.
Unfortunately, even the mesmerizing dance sequences and in particular Fuller’s first performance cannot save the film from its general dullness and failed profundity. Di Giusto lets the dance unfold before us in all its beauty via simple straight-on shots, and underlines Fuller’s strength and determination with close-ups on her pained face and coloured lights marking her tense traits. In the end, these masterful scenes seem to belong to another version of the film which would be less conventional, and would explore the experimental aspect of this dance in order to better connect it to its creator.■
The Dancer / La Danseuse│ Director: Stéphanie di Giusto│ Screenplay: Stéphanie di Giusto, Sarah Thibau, Thomas Bidegain│ Camera: Benoit Debie│ Editing: Geraldine Mangenot│ Music: -│ Cast: Soko, Gaspard Ulliel, Lily Rose Depp│ Producer: Alain Attal, Marie Jardillier, Philippe Logie, Emma Javaux│ Production Company: Les Productions du Tresor / Les Film du Fleuve / Sirena Film│Country: France / Belgium / Czech Republic│ Year: 2016│ Running Time: 108 min.│ International Sales: Wild Bunch│ Festival: Cannes IFF 2016│