Savina Petkova on Damien Manivel’s ‘Isadora’s Children’ (2019)
The sole’s of a dancers feet vividly express the levity and weight that define our lives as embodied beings. Arrested, heels pointed towards the sky, they seem peaceful, beautifully sculpted in a snapshot, yet they provide steady support for a body, constantly weighted down by woes and gravitational forces. Physicality as strong as this may render any metaphor extraneous.
“Mythical” is the most clear-cut way to present the individual that French-American dancer Isadora Duncan was, and precisely this single epithet appears on a black screen. Also called the “mother of modern dance”, she inaugurated a revolutionary perspective on physicality and performance across early 20th century Europe. With this first feature, Isadora’s Children / Les Enfants d’Isadora, Damien Manivel, a filmmaker and dancer himself, pays more than a mere tribute to a phenomenal persona, and the film has already won him Best Director at Locarno. Structure-wise, a slim runtime of 84 minutes encompasses three affective chapters which attend to four dancers and choreographers, coupled by Duncan’s infamous piece “Mother”. Dating from around 1923, some years after her children’s most tragic death, the dance is a bit over three minutes long and tuned to Alexander Scriabin’s Etudes. Even if the film sets out this preliminary knowledge, it does lure one in anticipating a documentary approach or simple recreation.
Framed in a tight 1:37 ratio, with a nostalgic graininess composing the film’s flesh, its interplay of light and darkness gradually dims daylight into thick night, a well-crafted chiaroscuro that emits glow from within. Dancer Agathe Bonitzer (as herself) takes the lead in opening Isadora’s Children with an exigent study of Duncan’s piece on motherhood and loss. Without any narrated or dialogue motivation, elliptic storytelling strings together episodes of daily life and studio practices that look and feel equally exquisite. The impression of Bonitzer’s quotidian pace through Paris begins with a close-up of her feet sliding off the soft fabric of a blue bed sheet to touch the ground with a muted thump. Tracking shots then enclose her neck and amber hair with little surroundings deemed worthy of the camera’s attention. In the studio, long takes gracefully expand the definite hand gestures of motherly love which shape “Mother” as an intimate performance about channelling grief into expression. While Bonitzer gently repeats the same motion of extending an arm and cupping her palm over and over again, the film’s attentive up-close gaze (or through a smudged mirror reflection) attests to the pre-existent nature of gestures that underlie something universally human.
Owing to Noé Bach’s elegant cinematography, movements and arrested motion acquire a new, transcendent meaning in relation to empathy and grief. While the first part of the film circles around a single dancer’s attempt to come in contact with the Duncan’s galvanic expression of mourning and letting go, the slightly longer second act opens up space for two. Choreographer Marika Rizzi articulates over and over again the stakes of an artwork such as “Mother” to her much younger student Manon Carpentier and rehearse it time after time. Performance as arduous and challenging, laden with personal trauma, and the body as an instrument to its healing virtues — all this summarises the film’s middle section.
As one would suppose, the culmination would be timed with the audience-set performance, yet the built-up spectacle happens off screen. Instead, the camera interacts with the spectators, rather than the stage, tracing their twitches, expressions or expressionless faces, pacing slowly from one person to another. In this urgently ethical gesture, the film viewer encounters herself: in the face of Elsa Wolliaston, famed dancer and star of Manivel’s 2010 short Lady and a Dog. Our gaze matches hers, her tears become ours in a singular fusion of looker and looked-at. The most poignant part of the film is executed in a rigorous, formally strict way but its overwhelming tenderness for the spectator’s empathy, doubled even, renders it a symbol of absolution.
In exploring the chasms of grief, Isadora’s Children is brave enough to allow transformation for its protagonists after baring their own bleeding souls, as they take different parts in a single dance performance. In his first feature, Manivel has encapsulated a tranquil understanding for human weaknesses, pauses, slow time, and the hesitant steps one takes when approaching another person. Building on such an aura, the static long takes, as well as the measured pans confirm that it is through laborious work, compassion and attention, in both dance and cinema, that stillness can acquire an entirely new significance: to halt and observe is already an ethical stance.
Isadora’s Children screened as part of the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2020.