The casting of French actress-musician Soko in the lead role is perhaps the biggest strength of this biopic that explores the life and work of Belle Epoque dancer Loie Fuller. In a film that has seemingly taken many liberties with the facts, Soko manages to make the central character a sympathetic figure despite a refusal to compromise that pushes her to the brink of physical and psychological collapse. Helmed by first-time feature director Stéphanie Di Giusto, The Dancer is an ode to creativity and perseverance, celebrating the determination, influence and work ethic of an unconventional artist whose real talents lay in developing unique costume, stage and lighting designs that elevated her performances into a mesmerising display of colour and movement unlike anything that had been seen before. The film does drift into melodrama towards the end, particularly with regard to the relationship between Fuller and the manipulative Isadora (Lily-Rose Depp), but it is a powerful performance from Soko that ensures the film serves as a worthy tribute to an iconic, pioneering artist.
In an opening sequence that covers a lot of territory in a very short space of time before the opening credits and is, apparently, completely fictional and somewhat removed from the reality of her upbringing, we are introduced to Loie as a 20-something living a hardscrabble existence with her father Ruben (Denis Menochet) somewhere in the American Northwest at the back end of the 19th century. When Ruben is shot and killed (the reason for which is never revealed), Loie makes her way to New York where she takes up residence with her mother Lili (Amanda Plummer), who is a devout devotee of the Temperance Union, an evangelical Christian women’s organisation committed to a life of purity. Seeking a career as an actress, it is during a theatre performance that a wardrobe malfunction proves serendipitous; the catalyst for the creation of the Serpentine Dance that captivates audiences and ultimately secures her a spot with the famed Folies Bergere in Paris.
The film doesn’t shy away from the fact that Loie relies on heavily her expansive dress, elaborate staging and expensive lighting to compensate for her shortcomings as a dancer. Ultimately though, it is the combination of all the various elements that make her performances so spectacular. What is perhaps most impressive about Loie is her refusal to succumb to the torturous physical toll that the performances necessarily demand of her, as though she is punishing herself in some way. When Loie is approached by the Paris Opera to present a performance, she gathers a collective of young protégés that includes Isadora, a beautiful and immensely talented dancer who captivates Loie both professionally and personally. This relationship is not handled particularly well by Di Giusto and ultimately only serves as a distraction, for both Loie and the movie audience.
As Loie’s benefactor of sorts, Gaspard Ulliel’s Count d’Orsay is an extremely strange character indeed. Physically presenting as a cross between Dick Dastardly and the bad guy from kids TV show Lazy Town, the perpetually ether-sniffing d’Orsay spends much of the film lusting after Loie yet is seemingly impotent. It is his influence that secures Loie her utmost opportunity, yet he makes a spectacular exit from her life at the moment of her greatest triumph. Of the supporting players, Melanie Thierry fares best as Loie’s wrangler Gabrielle, while it is always great to see Plummer (The Fisher King, Pulp Fiction) on screen, although her role here is somewhat inconsequential. The dance sequences are presented in such a way by cinematographer Benoît Debie (Irreversible, Spring Breakers) to capture the mesmerising beauty of Loie’s performances and Soko effectively imbues the insecurity, single-mindedness and quiet despondency of her character. Regardless of the fact that Di Giusto has been somewhat loose in her rendering of the events of Loie’s life, The Dancer is a thoughtful and engaging biopic about an artiste who perhaps deserves one more moment in the spotlight.