Were ever words on screen more deserving of groans than the fatal “based on a true story”? To be fair to novice helmer Stéphanie Di Giusto, she acknowledges she took some licenses with dancer Loïe Fuller’s biography, but then why bother with the “based on” line when nearly all of “The Dancer” deviates so wildly from the truth? More problematic, even if we accept the film as pure fiction, is its pedestrian construction and ill-conceived script, unlikely to spark interest in one of the most innovative and influential performers of the last century and a quarter. Its $9 million budget was a lot of dough for main producer Alain Attal to round up, though perhaps Euro play might see respectable returns.
Di Giusto claims “almost no one” remembers Fuller, though ask anyone remotely familiar with dance history, film history and the Belle Époque, and they’ll all be able to visualize the iconic posters of Jules Cherét depicting Fuller and her colorful swirling fabric. “La Loïe,” as the French call her, was more than a dance sensation; she was a marketer’s dream, and it’s hard to think of Art Nouveau existing without Fuller’s whirls, which graced lithographs, postcards, sculptures, ashtrays, even shadow theater toys. Her crucial influence on Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham and many others literally changed the development of modern dance.
In this retelling, Fuller (musician-actress Soko) is raised as an outdoorsy kind of gal somewhere in the Rockies by French father Ruben (Denis Ménochet), until he’s shot dead in a plein-air bathtub in 1892 by bandit cowboys (every element of which is pure fantasy, including the French father). She makes it to Brooklyn, where her temperance-mad mother sort of makes an appearance in the story. It’s in that borough that Loïe tries her hand at acting, turning a wardrobe malfunction into a crowd-pleaser by swirling her loose skirt about.
This eureka moment gets her thinking, and seemingly the next day she’s got her act all sketched out. Just in time she encounters ether-sniffing Brooklyn resident Count Louis Dorsay (Gaspard Ulliel), a sensualist incapable of climax but with fab digs and a wad of $100 bills lying about. Knowing that Paris is more congenial to artists than Brooklyn, Loïe boards a ship to France, forces her way into the attention of Folies Bergère manager Marchand (François Damiens), and presents her dance to enthusiastic audiences in the famed nightspot.
With the essential assistance of Marchand’s right-hand Gabrielle (Mélanie Thierry), Fuller develops ever-more elaborate spectacles involving fabric and colored lights, wowing the Folies crowd with her revolutionary vortices of movement. At least this last part is true: Loïe’s innovatory experiments featured an explosion of swirling fabric that shattered more staid, classical dance movements of the period and paved the way for Futurism’s obsession with motion and speed.
Also relatively accurate is that Isadora Duncan (Lily-Rose Depp) worked with Fuller in France. In reality they disliked each other personally but respected their differing approaches to dance, though in “The Dancer” Duncan is a scheming Eve Harrington pretending to lead Fuller into a lesbian affair only to use the connection for her own conniving advancement.
Ah, artistic license! But for what purpose? Di Giusto fails to make a case for these ridiculous inventions, offering merely the uninspired and formulaic picture of an artist suffering mightily for her craft. Even the great build-up to Fuller’s debut at the Paris Opéra (which in reality didn’t happen until 1920) feels disjointed, as if the director and her editor didn’t quite know how to develop the scenes to create a much-needed sense of excited expectation along with an appropriate pay-off.
Not that Soko’s interpretation of Fuller’s performances disappoint: Those are well-staged, capturing some of the magic of Loïe’s fantastically flowing natural forms (though her ground-breaking color experiments, including the use of phosphorescence and gases, are only weakly acknowledged). The same can’t be said of Duncan’s dances (Depp was body-doubled by dancer Fanny Sage), which are more late-20th-century imaginings of Duncan’s classical style.
Acting is overall acceptable though unremarkable apart from Thierry, who brings more character to an underwritten role than any of the others can muster. Unfortunately for Soko, the costume designer doesn’t seem to be a fan, and she’s dressed in unflattering clothes the actress is unable to carry. While this may be Di Giusto’s attempt to emphasize Fuller’s ungainly appearance, on screen it just looks clumsy. Visually the director channels a number of late-19th-century artists, with a nod in particular to James Jacques Tissot, whose painting of Frederick Burnaby seems to provide inspiration for a scene of Count Dorsay.