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MOVIE REVIEW: Loie Fuller is “The Dancer” in Movie Myth

by Bonnie Rosenstock
December 1, 2017
“The Dancer” (“La Danseuse”) is a 2016 French biopic about the American dancer, inventor, actress and writer Loie Fuller, which has only recently made it to these shores after being previously screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It was directed and written by Stéphanie Di Giusto and co-written by Thomas Bidegain and Sarah Thiebaud, based on the 680-page tome on her life and work by the eminent art historian Giovanni Lista. In this case, “based on” is very loose indeed. This is unfortunate because Fuller (1862-1928), once the most famous dancer in the world, was an exceptional character, and a film based on her life should be exceptional and more faithful to the subject.

Fuller, born Marie Louise Fuller in 1862 in a Chicago suburb, didn’t wrestle steer somewhere in the West with her drunken French father (Denis Ménochet), by way of explaining why she spoke fluent French. Nor was he shot in the head while luxuriating in an outdoor bathtub by some bandits after his gold. A very picturesque scene nonetheless, straight out of a Coen Brothers or Robert Altman movie. She also didn’t flee to Brooklyn to live with her temperance-rigid, god-fearing mother, marvelously played by Amanda Plummer. (Fuller’s parents were Freethinkers and didn’t go to church.) She also didn’t encounter a dissolute ether-sniffing Count Louis Dorsay (a properly dour and depressed Gaspard Ulliel) in said borough, have blah sex with him and steal his money to bankroll a ship to Paris in 1892.

In Paris (true), Fuller became a sensation and a star at the Folies Bergère. She developed elaborate spectacles involving yards of silk fabric, painted with phosphorescent dyes, which she manipulated with bamboo or aluminum poles inserted into the billowing sleeves. She also designed multi-colored lighting, gels and special effects, which she held patents for. Her choreography became less important than the images she created of three-dimensional spiraling whirlwinds of light, which morphed into butterflies, flowers, serpents and other images. (The pioneering Lumière Brothers made an 1896 film of her famous “The Serpentine,” performed by an unknown dancer, not Fuller.) “La Loie,” as she was known, became the embodiment of Art Nouveau and the Belle Époque and inspired a rash of remarkable paintings by Koloman Moser and Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret’s iconic Folies Bergère posters as well as postcards, sculptures and toys, a marketing tie-in dream.

The movie focuses on her obsessive creative process and insecurities, her relationship with the fictitious Dorsay, who happens to have a mansion she can live and work in, and her frenemy relationship with Isadora Duncan, played by the petite 18-year-old Lily-Rose Depp, Johnny’s girl with French singer Vanessa Paradis. Depp plays it hollow and pouty (when she isn’t being flirtatious and mean), which garnered her Most Promising Actress nominations from the Césars, the French Oscars, and the Lumière Award, equivalent to the Golden Globes. And Depp didn’t even do her own dancing. Go figure. In fact, Duncan did work with Fuller in Paris, and yes, they disliked each other, but no, Duncan didn’t try to seduce her into a lesbian affair for her own Eve Harrington gains. It would have made more sense to go full out on Fuller’s sexual preferences (she had an ex-husband and a long-time woman companion).

Soko, the French singer-songwriter, musician and actress, is remarkable as Fuller and rises above the dubious script and some far-fetched scenes. Soko, 32, has a round face and a full body, very similar to Fuller’s. Time Lapse Dance Artistic Director Jody Sperling, the preeminent exponent of Fuller's dance style, was the choreographer and creative consultant. She worked intensively with Soko for five to six hours daily for a period of five weeks helping her inhabit the role. For her work on the film, Sperling was nominated for a 2017 World Choreography Award. The film also garnered six César Award nominations, including a win for Best Costume Design.

Fuller herself was a paradox and adept at creating her own myths. However, after reading up on her life, I would take her myths and real life over this inexplicably made-up version. “The Dancer” was briefly shown in theaters. If you can still find it somewhere, turn off the sound, fast forward at will and view it for the sumptuous dance images.
Scene from 'The Dancer.'

Scene from "The Dancer."

Photo © & courtesy of Unknown


Scene from 'The Dancer.'

Scene from "The Dancer."

Photo © & courtesy of Unknown


Scene from 'The Dancer.'

Scene from "The Dancer."

Photo © & courtesy of Unknown


Scene from 'The Dancer.'

Scene from "The Dancer."

Photo © & courtesy of Unknown


Scene from 'The Dancer.'

Scene from "The Dancer."

Photo © & courtesy of Unknown

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