In Locarno, Damien Manivel talked to us about his latest film, Isadora’s Children, and told us about his working method — or lack thereof.
Calling Damien Manivel’s latest film a ‘dance film’ may make it sound much more daunting than it is — Isadora’s Children is far from austere or inaccessible. The film centres on ‘The Mother’, a solo piece of contemporary dance which was created by celebrated 1920s dancer Isadora Duncan after the tragic death of her two children. This is pretty much all that the film tells us about Duncan and her dance. Manivel never lectures his audience; instead, he gives us only the information we need to know, before letting the dance speak for itself.
Structured in three distinct parts, Isadora’s Children shows the resurrection of this now 100-years-old dance into the lives of four women, each of different ages, different backgrounds, and different walks of life. From the young woman of the first section, working on her own in a studio, the film then moves on to an older dancer and her student, a young girl with Down Syndrome. After their performance at the end of the second part, the film then follows one of the women in the audience as she goes back home and, in turn, keeps ‘The Mother’ alive in her own way.
It would be a cliche to compare the film itself to a dance, but it is true. The decisions Manivel has made in terms of staging, editing, camera movements etc. have the same deliberate and delicate quality, and the same eye for beauty. Like Duncan’s ‘The Mother’, the film also feels inhabited by a profound love — for these women, for their lives and their own search for beauty and connection.
We interviewed the French filmmaker in Locarno about filming dance, working without a set method, and structuring the film in three parts.
Seventh Row (7R): Can you tell us about the genesis of this film centred on dance?
Damien Manivel: I used to be a dancer before I made movies. As soon as I started working in cinema, I wanted to talk about dance, about what I had experienced, the things I had in me, my memories of dance. But it took me a while because I couldn’t really find the right approach. In the end, this is my fourth feature film, and I thought, “You have to go ahead, you have to try your luck.”
I started working with Agathe Bonitzer, one of the actors in the film. We did some improvisations to begin the research. A friend of mine, a choreographer, was present in the dance studio. One day, Agathe made a very slow gesture — she lifted her arm — and my friend said, “That reminds me of Isadora Duncan’s ‘Mother.’” I asked her what that piece was. She told me the story, and as soon as she did, I thought, “That’s it! This is the film I’m going to make.”
After that, it all happened quite quickly, because I realised that this dance piece, which is now 100 years old, was going to be the thread running through the film. Almost its main character. I wanted to make it so that this dance would go through different bodies, at different ages, each carrying a different story. It was all quite quick once Isadora entered the project.
Seventh Row: We learn about who Isadora Duncan was, and about her tragic story. When the first dancer performs the dance fully for the first time, at the end of the first section of the film, we are extremely moved, but not only because Duncan’s story is devastating. How did you balance these two impulses — the desire to tell Duncan’s story, and the desire not to use her grief to get at the viewer in a cheap way?
Damien Manivel: Exactly, That was one of the major challenges of my work. How can we, with a tragic story, turn not towards pain but towards life? It’s a film about the transformation of suffering. For me, the most important thing was to respect the material I was using. To respect what had happened to Isadora, to find the right distance, to not use it in an opportunistic way, but on the contrary, to elevate it. To unfold it in the present and to give it its topicality.
That absolutely requires complex emotions, not just suffering. There needs to be joy, transmission, work; the outside world must invite itself into the dance, and the dance must invite itself into the outside world. I always keep in mind the fact that, even if my films are relatively simple and have a very clear shape, the goal is precisely to let the world in, to let life in, and not to be austere.
7R: In The Park, the previous film you directed on your own, there are funny scenes where two teenagers discuss big ideas like Freud and psychology, but in this very vague way. They’re no experts, but that’s okay. In Isadora’s Children, there is also that movement towards a relatively high-brow subject — modern dance — but without any sense of the film looking down on those who may not know about dance.
Damien Manivel: I try to make films “at face value,” at the first degree, without irony. If there is a part of naivety — in the good sense of the term — or lyricism in the material, I embrace it completely, and I distribute it to the viewer head on, in a very frontal and direct manner. This dance, for example, is 100 years old. It is anachronistic today. Contemporary dancers do not dance like this. But I take that dance with everything that it carries of its time, and of Duncan’s lyricism, too. Her way of expressing herself — it’s something big and extremely poetic.
I think that today, this is a kind of voice we don’t hear anymore. Because, in my opinion, the society we live in really works contrary to poetry. It’s as if there was an enterprise for the destruction of poetry.
We can talk about big ideas. And we can talk about art, too, without sham mystique. Art is a part of everyone’s lives; the artistic and poetic experience is part of the experience of all, whether you’re a child or an old man. I just try to make this idea a little more accessible, because it’s really what I believe in.
7R: With films that are divided into distinct parts, there must be an anxiety around whether each will be as strong as the others. How did you decide on those sections?
Damien Manivel: The main idea was that, since there are no pictures of Isadora dancing this piece, we returned to the sheet on which the sequences of steps were written. It’s the only trace left of this dance, written in Labanotation.
I soon realised that the gesture of my film was going to be the same as the characters’: how do we exume this material? How do we transmit it to the viewer? And how do we unfold this emotion into the world? There is a trajectory. So, quite logically, the first dancer deciphers the dance, the second transmits it, and the third receives it, before she gives it, too.
Another thing that interested me was that, although we start off with Duncan, she imprints over these women of today. Women with different bodies, at different times of life…
When you’re working with several characters, there is often this idea that you’ll work with something choral. I’m not a fan of choral films, because I find that, often, it means creating artificial ways for the characters to connect. I feel like this choral quality is not always necessary. I try not to do it.
Instead, I tried to show Duncan’s solo being transferred from one woman to another. That’s the gesture of the film: to create a flow and make it so that the three parts aren’t so separate. I see the film as an energy that starts at the first shot, and opens itself in the last shot. Even though it is divided into chapters, I think that there is a very fluid energy underneath that works on the viewer, and which makes it so that the emotion is real at the end.
7R: More specifically, how do you decide on the compositions, the scenes within each part? Is there some improvisation, or is it very written?
Damien Manivel: I try, increasingly, so since a few films back, not to have a method. “Not having a method” is a weird thing to say, because I am making a film, but I try to always escape from developing a method, to escape routine. I mix very different methods together, and I always adapt — to the people I’m working with, to the weather, to money problems, to the people I meet, to the stories I hear.
The film is always, always enriched by everything I live and see. I can make a shot that lasts, say, one hour non-stop, where I direct the actors in the frame, and I talk to them a lot, a bit like in a theatre rehearsal. Sometimes, I write very precise dialogue and we shoot in a more classical way, where we have 12 takes to try and get what we want. I also draw a lot…
I have very strange methods, but I try to stay a kind of amateur, in a way: someone who’s searching, who’s ready to be surprised. I try to keep the energy of the beginner. It’s my fourth film, but it’s really important for me to keep that freshness and to always adapt. I’ve never told an actor, “What you’re doing is bad” or “You’re not doing what I ask.” That has never happened in eight films. I always adapt to the person I chose and there’s always something about that person — there’s a reason why I picked them, I just have to find it.
So it’s not simple, this (non)method. It can be quite destabilising for other people. But the small team I work with are used to it by now. They know that it is rewritten everyday and that it changes constantly. After that, of course, there’s the editing. But I believe that control and chaos are not at all incompatible.
7R: What happens at the editing stage? Do you already know what you’re going to keep before you start?
Damien Manivel: I can keep what I’ve shot in mind pretty well. It’s always there. But yes, it’s a different process. In my films, I have to respect a basic structure that I decide on from the beginning of the project. For example, The Park is set over 24 hours, so you can’t move sequences around. Same thing for my previous film, The Night I Swam, which is also set over a short period of time. And in Isadora’s Children, there’s the structure “deciphering – transmission – opening.” I have to keep that structure, which is fine by me; it’s a safety net. But within that structure, we search and try a lot of things.
There is also the rhythm. I really care about that. If the film has such an effect on us, that’s because it lays things down. It lays down the emotions and feelings very calmly and serenely, and gradually, something rises. It’s a lot of work with the editor, Dounia Sichov. I’ve learned a lot with her.
7R: You talk of chaos and refusing to fall back on a method. What then guides you towards ideas for films? Are you open to everything?
Damien Manivel: You can’t be open to everything, because that’s too wide. But I’m open within a certain frame, meaning I let myself be carried away by some things. I’ve started to be interested in Mary Magdalene, for example. I read a lot about her. It brought me to Homer, which brought me to a certain painting, which brought me to an Indian fairytale… I see that there is a coherence in all that, even though, if you look at it from the outside, it might not look that way.
You can feel if you’re excited or moved, if you feel a desire for something. I always follow that intuition. So it goes through all of that. I also write a little every day. I watch few films. My inspiration comes more from literature, conversations with friends, paintings, dance. And from things I observe. And there comes a point where you just know. That’s when the real work can start.
7R: At what point in your process do you work on the visual style? In The Park, the style is quite simple: there are static shots of the park, and the characters moving in them. In Isadora’s Children, it’s a little different because it’s a film about dance. There’s this idea that the movements of the characters dictate the movements of the camera a little bit more, while in The Park, actors just walked through the shots.
Damien Manivel: That is absolutely right. I love static shots. When I met with the DoP [Director of Photography] Noé Bach, I told him I wanted to stick to static shots again on Isadora’s Children. But then we started to work. I discovered this dance solo. I wondered how to film it…
I read Duncan’s thoughts on dance a lot, too, and she talks a lot about blurriness and fluidity, about water, about the power of softness. I tried to use those ideas when asking myself how I would film this dance. I didn’t want to cut the dance into little bits. I wanted it to be sensitive and fragile.
So we quickly understood that we had to watch this dance while dancing ourselves, in a way. We had to follow it with the camera. It was a real choice for me, and it took me out of my habitual ways. But it was great. It allowed us to go somewhere else.
7R: The first part is a woman who’s alone, learning this dance alone, with a book. But the second part features two dancers, and they’re talking a lot. How did you think of this change?
Damien Manivel: It’s hard to explain. For me, the first part isn’t about solitude. It’s an interior dialogue between Isadora Duncan and this young girl who was touched by her story and almost fights to recover Isadora’s gestures.
In the second part, I wanted there to be more life. It’s more confrontational, more documentary-like, and we feel that what is happening is real. I also really like the way dancers talk. I want to film dancers and movements, but also warm-ups, people who are putting their dancing outfits on, people who are focused, people who are tired after the dance, and people who talk. Dancers have a language, which I find very beautiful. Except for documentaries, we never hear it. But for me, it’s crucial, because it’s something I know and which brings back a lot of memories.
In the third part, we’re in something else again. By this point, there’s been an hour of film, — one hour of dance — a lot of movements, and we carry all this emotion in our heart. This third part is about the way every day can become enchanted again, with simple gestures becoming a dance. Each of these three modes corresponds to each of these women and to their energy.
7R: Usually, films about dance show us a dance, then leave us alone with our emotions. To see someone in a film actually being moved feels like an invitation. It feels like our own emotions are being recognised, and it removes a distance between film and viewer. It’s like an opening.
Damien Manivel: Absolutely. There is a progressive movement coming closer to the viewer and a recognition of the viewer’s position. The idea is that the trajectory of the film — this transmission — continues after the film. That’s what I tried to do.