Isadora's Children




An extraordinary insight into the fresh creation of an old dance work.

Isadora's Children

With Isadora's Children Damien Manivel, a former dancer, has found his ideal subject matter. As a filmmaker he has from the outset aimed at artistry rather than commercial appeal as was illustrated by the one earlier feature of his released here, 2016's Le Parc. In that case, however, his endeavours resulted in a work with which I for one found it hard to engage. Some may respond in that way to Isadora's Children since this is another challenging piece but in my eyes it emerges as virtually one of a kind, a wholly involving work that takes us behind the scenes to illustrate all the effort that goes into creating a work of art.


Back in 1956 the famed conductor Bruno Walter was featured on two vinyl discs conducting rehearsals of Mozart's Linz Symphony which were issued to give an insight into the intensive preparations that precede an orchestral performance. Manivel's film is comparably insightful about dance and for that purpose he offers a three-part work centred on the resurrection of a dance created by Isadora Duncan in the early 1920s. It was a short solo piece which, all those years later, echoed her continuing grief over the deaths of her two youngest children who had drowned in 1913 and it was called The Mother and danced to piano music by Scriabin.


In the first section of Isadora's Children we see how a modern choreographer, Agathe Bonitzer, reads about Duncan, studies the published dance notation and recreates the work accordingly. We hear no words in this section other than readings from Duncan's autobiography but already Manivel's knowledge of dance is enabling him to show the movements, especially those of the hands, with rare eloquence as Bonitzer goes about her work. In the second segment there is talk. Here we watch a teacher, Marika Rizzi, instructing a teenage dancer, Manon Carpentier, who has been chosen for this project despite her young age. The final part does not, as one might expect, show the actual performance which took place in the Carre Magique in Lannion, Brittany in 2018 but concentrates instead on its effect on the audience. In particular we follow one viewer as she returns to her home after being greatly moved by the performance. 


I was pleased that I knew in advance what form the film would take since otherwise I might have been distracted by uncertainty as to where it was all leading. But, being duly prepared, I was able to give myself over to what is a unique dramatised documentary, one that is immaculately shot by Noé Bach and superbly directed. Manivel even makes the fact that the performance was taking place in November an additional factor in the atmosphere of a piece already notably enriched by his use of Scriabin's music and by his own eye for detail. We don't learn about Carpentier's background as a teenager with Down Syndrome but that is fair enough because the focus is absolutely on the dance itself: realising it, recapturing its emotion for today's audiences and confirming that this work nearly a century old remains relevant. Especially for those who know that the spectator featured in the third section is Elisa Wolliaston, herself a now aged dancer who has to walk with a stick, the concluding sequence is touchingly eloquent albeit unlikely to appeal to those who dislike slow cinema. But what stands out is the total commitment of Damien Manivel who, in making a film about the creation of a work of art, gives us a film which is itself art of the highest quality. The only comparable piece that I can think of, another demanding film but one with actors, is Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse (1991). That revelatory work about what it means to be a painter is insightful, uncompromising yet immensely rewarding and so too is this study of the world of dance.


Original title: Les enfants d'Isadora.




Featuring  Agathe Bonitzer, Manon Carpentier, Marika Rizzi, Elsa Wolliaston.


Dir Damien Manivel, Pro Martin Bertier and Damien Manivel, Screenplay by Damien Manivel and Julien Dieudonné, Ph Noé Bach, Ed Dounia Sichov.


MLD Films/Jeonju Cinema Project-MUBI.
84 mins. France/South Korea. 2019. Rel: 2 September 2020. Available on MUBI. No Cert.