Locarno 2019: An Interview With ‘Isadora’s Children’ Director Damien Manivel

Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge spoke to filmmaker Damien Manivel ahead of the premiere of his latest film, Isadora’s Daughter (Les Enfants d’Isadora), at the 2019 Locarno Film Festival.

Q: How special is it to bring ‘Isadora’s Children’ to the Locarno Film Festival?

A: In 2014, I had the chance to come and present my first feature film, A Young Poet, at Locarno in the Filmmakers of the Present category. So, coming back this year in the international competition, with my fourth film Isadora’s Children, is very special for me because this festival is closely related to my career and has brought me a lot. I love their programming and this year, again, there are movies that I really want to discover.

Q: Do you remember the first time you saw Isadora Duncan’s ‘Mother’ and the impact it had on you?

A: For this new film, we began by doing dance tests with actress Agathe Bonitzer. One day, during an improvisation, Agathe made a very slow gesture, like a farewell, arms outstretched. A choreographer friend, Aurélie Berland, who was helping us, turned to me and said that this gesture reminded her of Isadora Duncan’s solo Mother.

She then taught me about the tragic death of Isadora’s two children from where this dance originated and I listened to the beautiful music of Scriabine. I then watched the dance: it seems very simple – it describes the crossing of a mother who carries her child until his last rest – but it’s very subtle, deep and tragic. It touched me a lot and I immediately understood that I found there a source from which I could build a story both personal and ample.

‘Isadora’s Children’

Q: How did yourself and co-writer Julien Dieudonné engage with this dance piece and set about building a feature film around it?

A: There is no period film or photograph of Isadora Duncan dancing this solo Mother. Like a legendary story, it was transmitted thanks to Duncan’s disciples who have kept her memory and the only surviving element today is a score written in Labanotation.

We then thought of a structure that would start from the rediscovery of this old solo until its final deployment. We cut the story into three chapters: a dancer who deciphers this score and gradually discovers these gestures that move her. A second part in which we witness a real situation of transmission of the solo between a choreographer, Marika Rizzi, and a young dancer with Down syndrome, Manon Carpentier. And then, finally, from the point of view of a spectator, an old lady who attends a performance, played by Elsa Wolliaston. On the way back, how does the emotion of these gestures continue to live in her?

To write the film, we very much based it on the texts that wrote Isadora Duncan during her lifetime, My Life in particular. We were inspired by documents of time (photographs, drawings…) and of course gestures of the solo themselves who already tell a beautiful story of loss and the comforting power of art.

Q: ‘Isadora’s Children’ follows four women as they encounter this dance piece. Can you tell us about these women and the different ways they interact with Isadora Duncan’s work?

A: In his autobiography, Duncan says, “Dance does not belong to anyone, you have to find your own dance”. This sentence gave me the idea that the solo, like a relay, passes from one woman to another. Going through diferent ages and physiques, carrying other stories, these ancient gestures are charged with a depth and at the same time, of a great topicality: the cinema does not belong to anybody and it is, in my opinion, necessary to show different types of beauties in order to have a more complex, richer vision of what is to be human.

So, it was important to me that they each have their own way of dancing, which is why they learned the solo by different means: Agathe learned the solo with Laetitia Doat, a choreographer specialized in Duncannian gestures; Marika was taught by a Duncan’s heiress, an American dancer named Amy Swanson, Manon learned it directly during the shooting with Marika; and Elsa only saw the solo a few times and what she’s dancing in the film is the memory of her emotion.

Q: This is your fourth feature film, but your first dance film. How did this experience compare to your previous work?

A: It has always been in my head, but I did not feel ready. This is a subject that is very dear to me and it took me a long time to find the right approach. I started making films where the dance is present invisibly, watching the actions of my actors with the same attention as if they were dancing. And then, I discovered the solo Mother and that’s what gave me the courage to make a film that speaks directly about dance.

I have about the same filming methods as on my previous films, but at the same time I had a different excitement, because even if the film does not tell my personal story, there was something very intimate, very risky for me. And then, working with four actresses who are so different is like starting from scratch every time, putting in a new energy, it’s very tiring but great, it’s for this kind of meetings that I make films.

‘Isadora’s Children’

Q: I’ve seen some beautiful and poetic clips from the film. Can you tell us about working with cinematographer Noé Bach and the visual language of the film?

A: This is the first time that Noé Bach and I have worked together and it was very refreshing for me. Noé is someone very demanding and creative. He brings a lot of ideas and proposals.

Initially, I wanted to shoot exclusively in fixed shots like my previous films, but while preparing the film with him, we gradually made the choice of a camera in motion, very soft as the gestures of the solo, to accompany each one characters. As we work in a small economy, we must make aesthetically strong choices. I sometimes take very long shots to get actors’ moments of truth, and Noé had to be always alert and ready to seize if something unexpected happened.

Q: Did you have any references for this film? Are there any dance films in particular that inspired you?

A: There is not one film in particular, but for so long I have been watching dance films (both experimental and narrative), including all American musicals, in which I particularly admire the moments of transition between everyday moments and dance : how to slip into the dance… it is very beautiful.

Although my film is very different, I tried to show this shift, especially in the moments of rehearsals but also in the moments outside the studio, how the dance can feed life, transform our look on the world around

Q: What do you hope audiences take away from this for film?

A: I hope that the emotion of this dance, which is transmitted between these women, can pass in turn in the heart of the spectator. With this film, by reviving this century-old solo on screen, I try to bring a touch to the transmission of the memory of the work of Isadora Duncan.

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