The butterfly

Stéphanie Di Giusto on Loïe Fuller, The Dancer and scaring Harvey Weinstein

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Stéphanie Di Giusto on The Dancer:
Stéphanie Di Giusto on The Dancer: "The movie is always in movement." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Stéphanie Di Giusto's The Dancer (La Danseuse), screenplay in collaboration with Les Cowboys director Thomas Bidegain, based on the book Loïe Fuller: Danseuse De La Belle Époque by Giovanni Lista, stars Soko as Fuller with Lily-Rose Depp as Isadora Duncan. The supporting cast includes Gaspard Ulliel, Mélanie Thierry, François Damiens, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Amanda Plummer, and Denis Ménochet.

I met up with the director at the restaurant inside the Marlton Hotel the day before her debut film opened in New York. We discussed how Nick Cave and Warren Ellis got involved through Andrew Dominik's The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, her costume designer Anaïs Romand who won a César, working with cinematographer Benoît Debie, seeing Soko in Alice Winocour's Augustine, and Harvey Weinstein's reaction after seeing The Dancer at Cannes.

Stéphanie Di Giusto on Soko for The Dancer:
Stéphanie Di Giusto on Soko for The Dancer: "I saw Augustine and I also saw her sing on stage. What was interesting is that Soko is not just an actress, she's an artist."

The Dancer, a Rendez-Vous with French Cinema highlight, is Soko's film. Her performance as American choreographer Loïe Fuller, whirling dervish of late 19th century modern dance and innovator of colourful theatre lighting, carries us through the serpentine plot from wild-westerly Illinois to the Paris stage. When some cowboy ropes Loïe's leg and pulls her off as if she were one of the cattle, the mood is set. Stéphanie Di Giusto creates many enchanting, atmospheric tableaux that speak of her heroine's struggles without a word necessary to be spoken.

A visually unforgettable incident featuring her father (Denis Ménochet) and an outdoor bathtub, brings her to Brooklyn, where in 1892, her mother (Amanda Plummer) gives her shelter at the Temperance League that saved her own life. Loïe auditions, battles with propositions and encounters all the sleaziness of showbiz. A chance dress malfunction turns out to be a blessing in disguise - new ideas are born, important friends are made, above all Count Louis d'Orsay (Gaspard Ulliel) who arranges for her to perform in France.

The heavy costumes and glaring lights soon take their toll on Fuller at the Folies Bergère, run by Edouard Marchand (François Damiens). When Isadora Duncan (Lily-Rose Depp) arrives on the scene as one of the pupils in her troupe, we enter All About Eve territory. Depp's Duncan has evil intention written on her face.

Loïe Fuller (Soko):
Loïe Fuller (Soko): "You know, throughout the movie, in every single shot, she's always in movement …"

Anne-Katrin Titze: Let's start in the American West. In this case, Illinois ...

Stéphanie Di Giusto: Actually, the French Alps.

AKT: Exactly. The French Alps stand in for Illinois which looks very much like the Wild West. I loved what you did in the scene at the beginning when Loïe Fuller is roped like an animal. It sets up perfectly the obstacles to come. Can you talk about how you came up with that scene?

SDG: I thought about only one single thing, which was the gesture. Because this is a person who has trouble finding the words, but she's going to find the right gesture through her art.

It was important for me to start the work with a gesture and this gesture of her being captured like an animal. Because ultimately she is a woman who has come from the mud, from the soil, and yet she is going to cross the Atlantic to create this poetic beauty with her art.

So I was also very interested in contrast. Ultimately, the gesture would continue throughout the movie. The movie is always in movement. What's also beautiful at that moment is the audience for this - that it begins with a humiliation. And ultimately her first audience is the audience at this rodeo and it is a humiliation.

Stéphanie Di Giusto on Soko as Loïe Fuller:
Stéphanie Di Giusto on Soko as Loïe Fuller: "I thought about only one single thing, which was the gesture."

AKT: And it continues with her humiliation. Her dress malfunction gives her ideas and throughout …

SDG: It was very important for me to create this beginning where we would say to ourselves, my god, this poor girl, where is she going with her rag! And that we wouldn't understand the essence of her poetry until the middle of the film. I had to bring the viewer all the way to the middle of the film for him or her to finally understand the poetry of this woman.

And what I was interested in with this character also is that she is a woman of impulses. I was interested in this contrast between a woman who is clumsy, who is uncomfortable with herself, who is heavy - and on the other hand the lightness she brings to the stage.

AKT: The butterfly that she becomes.

SDG: Exactly. And it's also the nature that she grew up in in the American West. The gesture she has of drawing nature comes from there.

AKT: And her coming back to nature is that she has to go through artifice to complete it.

Count Louis d'Orsay (Gaspard Ulliel) with Loïe Fuller (Soko):
Count Louis d'Orsay (Gaspard Ulliel) with Loïe Fuller (Soko): "An obsession among French people for bathtubs."

SDG: And that's why at the end … You know, throughout the movie, in every single shot, she's always in movement, except for the very last shot when finally she reaches stillness. At that point she has her feet in the grass and the camera moves up to the sky, which is where we started with the lasso.

AKT: Ah, I didn't pick up on that. One moment, when she was still, more or less, was when her mother [Lily, played by Amanda Plummer] at the Temperance League was cutting her hair.

SDG: That's true. She's not saying anything, you can feel she wants to resist.

AKT: One scene I found fascinating early on is the one with the bathtub. The shots in the bathtub. It's funny, it was the second French film I saw this year that featured a wild scene with an outdoor bathtub.

SDG: What's the other one? Which one copied me?

AKT: Céline! Emmanuel Bourdieu's film about Céline with Denis Lavant.

On Lily-Rose Depp as Isadora Duncan:
On Lily-Rose Depp as Isadora Duncan: "She's a young woman who's afraid of nothing and she's extraordinarily mature."

SDG: Denis Lavant?! He must have seen my film.

AKT: There is no shooting!

SDG: Then it's okay.

AKT: He is offering a visitor to dip into the dirty bathwater of his wife [played by Géraldine Pailhas] - in that outdoor bathtub. And I just thought, wow, such interesting outdoor bathtub scenes!

SDG: An obsession among French people for bathtubs.

AKT: In 2017. So this unusual killing just came to your mind?

SDG: It's always the same. It's the place where cinema is born from. How do you direct, what is the mise-en-scène of death? You have to try to be as quiet as possible and to move people as much as possible. One thing that's for certain is that Loïe's father truly was murdered. But I don't know how and it probably wasn't in a bathtub.

AKT: Soko is fantastic. It's hard to imagine anybody else in the role.

The Dancer poster at Village East Cinema
The Dancer poster at Village East Cinema Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

SDG: Yes. It was always her.

AKT: You saw her in Augustine and said - this is it?

SDG: Yes. I saw Augustine and I also saw her sing on stage. What was interesting is that Soko is not just an actress, she's an artist. She sings, she writes. So I knew that something would communicate between her and Loïe Fuller. There would be a dialogue.

Also what's very important and interesting is that she has a femininity that's kind of outside of the norm. She's not someone that you see on the cover of every magazine. She's not like that very smooth thing that you're very used to seeing. I needed someone who was not smooth in that way, that was out of the norm.

AKT: It's her film. She is absolutely perfect. Also in contrast to Isadora Duncan and little 16-year-old Lily-Rose Depp. There is no film footage of Fuller, I suppose?

SDG: There are no film images, no.

AKT: Do the two actresses resemble the real people?

SDG: Loïe had big round blue eyes. In a way she looked a bit more like me. Soko has brown eyes but there's still something similar there. Isadora Duncan did not look like Lily-Rose. There's no similarity there actually. What I'm operating with is feeling. And I remember that when I did screen tests with Lily-Rose I was so impressed with her way of receiving the light, of completely abandoning herself to the camera. She's a young woman who's afraid of nothing and she's extraordinarily mature.

Loïe Fuller (Soko) with Isadora Duncan (Lily-Rose Depp)
Loïe Fuller (Soko) with Isadora Duncan (Lily-Rose Depp)

AKT: As soon as she shows up, It's All About Eve territory.

SDG: Oh, yeah.

AKT: It's right there. On her face. What I found so intriguing is the sense of self of Loïe Fuller.

SDG: Well, in fact, she's in search of herself. It's the ultimate search. Even us, at least I hope, we don't quite know who we are yet. So ultimately, to summarise what the film is, it's really the story of someone who is searching for herself. That might even be the definition of artistic creation.

AKT: What is also very interesting is that this film comes out at this particular moment in time, post-Weinstein.

SDG: Maybe that's why he didn't buy my film in Cannes. Because Loïe Fuller scared him.

AKT: I believe that.

SDG: I know he saw my film. And he hated it. It's normal, because the femininity that Loïe represents, I think, for him is something that's just too scary.

The Dancer at Village East Cinema
The Dancer at Village East Cinema Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: And who is the winner now?

SDG [making a winning gesture with her arms and laughing]: I would love to write to him. "Remember Loïe Fuller? Remember Cannes?" I know that he was horrible about it. He can't understand a woman like that.

AKT: He doesn't.

SDG: But I think he could propose to Isadora Duncan to sleep with him.

Coming up - Stéphanie Di Giusto on her collaborators - writers Thomas Bidegain and Jacques Fieschi, composers Warren Ellis and Nick Cave, costume designer Anaïs Romand, cinematographer Benoît Debie, and the awareness of Loïe Fuller.

The Dancer opened in New York on December 1.

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