The serpentine dance, originated by Loïe Fuller, was immortalized on film by the Lumière brothers. In the 1896 short, Fuller spins at a feverish pace while the long and flowing cloth draped from her arms twirls around her in ever-changing, abstract patterns. The Dancer puts Fuller (Soko, née Stephanie Sokolinski) through the biopic wringer and ends up defining her less by her innovations than by her willingness to suffer for her art. An emphasis on pain, both physical and emotional, is relatively common in narratives about great artists, but the film takes this notion to its miserablist extreme.
Much of Stéphanie Di Giusto’s film is a fully fictionalized reconstruction of events from Fuller’s life. From her early years as a rugged frontierswoman alongside a French father (Denis Ménochet) who was murdered by bandits, to her romantic entanglement with real-life rival Isadora Duncan (Lily-Rose Depp), The Dancer is packed with intricately designed backstories and wild conjectures that feel engineered simply to amplify the tragic nature of Fuller’s existence. The film even ignores the many years of rigorous practice that led to the genesis of the serpentine dance, attributing its creation to a fateful accident when Fuller stumbles after stepping on a dress that was too long.
Fuller’s subsequent rise to fame during the Belle Époque in Paris is largely concerned with the pain of artistic creation; she’s often seen icing her sore arms or resting her eyes from the bright lights that shine on her face throughout her performances. Though the film briefly acknowledges her various patents, it practically turns its back to her innovations in stage lighting, which impacted the aesthetics of early cinema. Instead, The Dancer repeatedly forces us to endure the detrimental after effects of Fuller’s increasingly exhausting techniques—physical suffering that’s aggravated by her on-again, off-again relationship with Count Louis d’Orsay (Gaspar Ulliel), an ether addict whose saddled here with a fictionalized erectile dysfunction that ensures that Fuller also has no fun in the bedroom.
The only times that the film leaves the doldrums of artistic martrydom are during the rare moments when Di Giusto turns her camera toward Fuller on the stage. These dances are stunningly performed by Soko and celebrate the transcendent beauty of Fuller’s demanding routines. But the joy of these sequences dissolves as soon as the film returns to its one-note portrayal of Fuller’s supposedly tormented existence. As such, The Dancer remains content to exploit the sacrifices Fuller made to achieve fame without exploring the intelligence and mental strength that helped her become a fearless pioneer in her field. And like the serpentine dance, the film is structured on repetition: spinning and spinning but never actually taking us nowhere.