Jacob Richardson | 27/03/2017
Much like Loie’s dress during her dance, The Dancer is both languid and roiling, quiet and calm; a tour de force in creative freedom and direction, anchored by a breakout performance from Stéphanie Sokolinski better known as Soko.
Chronicling the rise of Loie Fuller (Soko), the toast of the Folies Bergeres at the turn of the 20th century, The Dancer opens with the death of Loie’s French father in the wilderness of America. Loie, left bereft of parental care, flees to her mother and her church group in New York. There, Loie first tests out her new and innovative dance; creating her costume from a white bed sheet.
It’s a resounding success, and Le comte Louis d’Orsay (Gaspard Ulliel) is the most enamoured of the crowd. Beginning a proto-relationship with him, Loie enjoys her new friendship. That is, until she discovers that another young dancer has stolen her routine. Outraged, Loie steals Louis’ money and takes a boat to Paris, where she debuts her dance to a rapturous applause. She becomes stunningly famous, and the rest of the picture follows her ever increasing need to outperform herself, her relationship with protégé and rival Isadora Duncan (Lily Rose-Depp) and her continuing relationship with Louis d’Orsay.
With her debut feature, Stephanie Di Giusto perfectly captures the essence of this exquisite, irrepressible dancer. Coupled with an intense and subtle performance from Soko, Di Giusto is able to bring an incredible sense of depth to this historical figure. She also has a very distinctive flair for stunning imagery. Early scenes with the bathtub are filled with piercing tension, while later work around the palace, and particularly with smoke, are hauntingly hypnotic.
Nothing compares to Loie’s dance though. It is the real centrepiece of the show, for both Loie and Di Giusto. With the white cloth writhing and twirling like a roiling ocean, sometimes blue, sometimes red, sometimes white, bringing a sense of both frenetic energy and calm, depending on the accompanying score. It is utterly stunning, and the fierce strength Soko brings to her performance in these moments makes it feel real.
Alas, while Soko is ably supported in the most part by Gaspard Ulliel and Melanie Thierry, when Lily-Rose Depp comes on the scene the picture starts to falter. She comes across as precocious; utterly unlikeable. Her presence, and the knowledge of her fame, takes us out of this otherwise immersive picture, and makes us long for the first half of the film – blessedly bereft of Ms Depp. Her presence also emphasizes Di Giusto’s occasionally confusing structure. The film lunges and lurches; spending too much time occasionally on uninteresting or unimportant elements, and too little on fascinating pieces of Soko’s psyche. One of the worst culprits is her relationship with Isadora (Depp). Di Giusto seemingly doesn’t recognise how intriguing her main character is by herself, and instead subjects us to a precocious secondary character.
Nevertheless, despite this and a late development to Louis d’Orsay that feels unearned, Di Giusto delivers a compelling, thought-provoking, visually outstanding picture that undoubtedly signals the beginning of an impressive career.
Anchored with a frankly stunning performance from lead actress Soko, and brought to life with impressive confidence and visual flair by first time feature director Di Giusto, The Dancer is a sumptuous piece of French Cinema that is also accessible to mainstream Hollywood-fare viewers. Utterly irrepressible and a must-see, The Dancer is well worth the price of admission.