What a difference two years makes to a film’s reception! When The Dancer – Stéphanie Di Giusto’s historical biopic starring Soko as influential legend of modern dance Loie Fuller – was released in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section back in 2016, the reception was…lukewarm. Typical reviews acknowledge the intensity of Soko’s performance, but grumble about the film’s conventional narrative structure and gripe about its failure to do justice to Loie Fuller.
I’ll concede that my response to the film might be shaped by my complete ignorance of Fuller. I’ll equally concede that it’s impossible to predict how The Dancer might have been received had it been released now (as it hits DVD stores in Australia). But with wider film culture shaken by the reverberations of Weinstein and #MeToo, it’s hard not to imagine that Di Giusto’s work would have received a far more positive reception.
Despite the familiarity of the film’s rise-and-sorta-fall storyline, in 2018 Di Giusto’s true intent cuts through: to examine the realities of female success in a male society, to interrogate how talent and hard work are met with belittlement, dismissal and outright assault. Rather than present Loie Fuller’s success with the conventional ‘genius’ framing beloved by male writers and directors, Di Giusto complicates the narrative.
Loie’s no chosen one – her iconic dance moves are born out of a clumsy accident but forged by grit and determination – and while every genius has their detractors, Loie finds herself up against a conservative system unprepared for an unconventional woman who knows what she wants. It’s not merely hoity-toity opera directors who turn their noses up at her high-wattage requirements, either; early on in Loie’s quest to breakthrough as an actress or singer, she finds herself on the early-nineteenth century equivalent of a porn set.
That scene concludes with a rape. Where male directors might have used this as a foundational tragedy in their protagonist’s journey, it’s telling how casually Di Giusto stages this scene. Loie greets her violation with a kind of dismal acceptance that suggests in this world – and ours – this is par for the course for aspiring women. On the whole, The Dancer’s representation of sexuality is refreshingly unique; Loie takes two women as her lover (including Isadora Duncan, eventually a famous dancer in her own right, as played by Lily-Rose Depp), but neither coupling is presented as scandalous – simply relationships formed on the rocky path to greatness.
Reinforcing the film’s feminist trajectory is the role of Louis (Gaspard Ulliel), a creative partner and possible lover of Loie’s whose role in the narrative is practically non-existent. It almost seems as though Ulliel is purely there as eye-candy; a reversal of the typical underappreciated love interest in Great Men movies.
All this seemed to have been underappreciated a couple of years ago, without the gravity of sexual assault and harassment in Hollywood weighing down a film about female artistry. But, to 2016 critics’ credit, the film is not without its problems. It resists and transforms biopic tropes about as often as it leads into them; the scenes of Loie physically struggling with the challenges of her art feel like thin reflections of similar moments from better films. And while the relationship between Loie and Isadora is certainly unconventional, it’s hard to defend Depp’s stilted, affectless line readings.
Thankfully, twirling through the centre of it all is Soko. An odd choice for a star perhaps – she’s better known as a singer than an actor, after all – but with her butch-meets-femme appearance and her dancer’s musculature, she fits the role better than any number of delicate ingenues. She pulses with the kind of energy that keeps The Dancer alive even through its weaker moments, and ensures that this is no ordinary artist’s biopic.