Damien Manivel's fourth feature film, Isadora's Children, is as lucid and delicate as the three that came before it, but with its premiere in the competition of the Locarno Film Festival, and the French filmmaker's subsequent win of the Best Director award, it should prove to be the film that will bring him greater international exposure.
Isadora's Children simply but beautifully explores two simultaneous ideas: that of the transmission of art from person to person, in this case from a dancer to a choreographer and performer to an audience member; and that of the art itself, a semi-autobiographical piece composed by preeminent American dancer Isadora Duncan about a mother's mourning her dead child. In the first part, effectively a solo, Agathe Bonitzer plays a lithe young dancer reading about Duncan's life, her personal tragedy, and her unique notation system for choreography. She slowly learns this dance, that of an older woman, a mother, and of mourning. The second part observes a younger dancer with Down syndrome (Manon Carpentier) working with a choreographer (Marika Rizzi) on the same dance. The film concludes with a third character, an elderly black woman (Elsa Wolliaston), watching a performance of the dance and slowly making her way home with considerable difficulty, her movement itself becoming dance-like.
Thus the film is a triptych made of three women, three bodies, and three histories who observe and absorb Duncan's piece, a constellation of individual and shared experience of womanhood, art, grief, and therapy. Shot with Manivel's characteristically spartan yet lovely eye for luminosity and harmony of composition, the film for the most part dodges the stiffness of its structure and the potential preciousness of its concept with a poised compassion, easeful beauty, and an overwhelming moving conclusion.
I spoke with Manivel—whose previous three films have all premiered on MUBI—about his relationship to dance, working with silence, how he cast his actors, and the idea of transmitting experience through art.
NOTEBOOK: With Isadora’s Children and your last film, The Night I Swam, you focus on using very little dialogue in your scripts. Most of the conversations in your new film are simply discussions of dance and rehearsal. What it’s like for you to craft a story without much talking?
DAMIEN MANIVEL: It’s kind of natural. In this film, I’m interested in the language of the dancer. How they speak. Because it’s memories I have, it’s a language I know. It’s like a form, like poetry for me. It’s very important. But I don’t need dialogue to make the story go further. I used to do short films with no dialogue, so I think from the beginning it’s something that I wanted to do. To focus on the gestures, work with silence.
NOTEBOOK: How is it that you are familiar with dance?
MANIVEL: I used to be a dancer before, contemporary dance. Since I began making films, I’ve always wanted to make a film about dance. But I couldn’t feel ready. I think in all of my films there is dance, but in a very invisible way, like everyday gestures. When I’m on set, I’m always looking at my actors as if they are dancing. So for example, in Le parc , when [the couple] walks hand in hand, it looks like it’s not so interesting because it’s just two people walking, but for me, when I look at the combo screen while I’m working, I’m watching them as they dance. And I try to feel the audience’s emotion. I began thinking of this method when I began in 2011, on the shoot of A Sunday Morning. There is a dog, there is a man, and they walk together. And I was making a shot, I was watching the combo, and I thought: let’s pretend they are dancing. And it started to give me ideas, so I continued on in all of my films to have this kind of two-dimensional way of working. I know what they are doing in real life, but at the same time, in my heart, I feel that they are dancing.
NOTEBOOK: Is this idea of dancing integrated into your conversations with your actors?
MANIVEL: No, I’ve never talked about that before. My team doesn’t know that I work in that way. It’s just in my mind that I try to transform what I’m seeing on the screen to bring it to a kind of fantasy.
NOTEBOOK: In a way is this one of the reasons why you like to shoot in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio? You see the more of the human body?
MANIVEL: Yeah. Recently all of my films have been in 1.33:1. I think the next film will be different. I don’t have a dogma about it, it’s just that I love that format and I think it’s perfect for the gestures, for the faces. Isadora’s Children is trying to connect the ground and the sky in some way, so it’s nice for vertical lines.
NOTEBOOK: It’s interesting you say the ground and the sky because, coming from The Night I Swam, which is an outdoor, landscape film, this new movie this is so much an interior film, full of rehearsal and theater spaces. How does that change effect your work?
MANIVEL: Even if I’m shooting inside, I need the weather outside. Because I need the real light, the good background. So, if I’m shooting inside I’m always thinking about how to make the outside exist. I tried to have in this film the idea that when you rehearse, when you dance, when you’re in the studio, going out of the studio is bringing back all these gestures and all these dances into the world. And it changes the way you look at the world. This is why I shot in autumn, there’s something about this season… I don’t know why, but I thought this story, these gestures, this dance: autumn. There is a dialogue between these elements.
NOTEBOOK: In the film, a dance by Isadora Duncan is experienced by three different women, a choreographer, a dancer, and an audience member. Which came first for you, the idea of the transmission of the dance or the context of Duncan’s life and the tragic circumstances surrounding her creation of this dance?
MANIVEL: When I was talking about from the ground to the sky, it’s also because of the main gesture of the film, which is to bring back something that is a 100 years old, which is a dance piece by Isadora Duncan called “Mother.” And to transmit it to the audience, and to bring them back to the world. So there’s an expanding movement in the film, something that goes from the ground to the sky. For me, it’s very important that there is this line.
NOTEBOOK: So you began with the idea of reintroducing “Mother,” and also the emotional resonance behind it: the transformation of a real tragedy into art that then resonates with other people?
MANIVEL: For sure. It’s a film about the transformation of pain and trying to turn it into life. At the same time, what fascinated me in that piece is that there is no film of Isadora dancing this piece. There is no photography. The only document left is a partition, wrote in Labanotation. When I saw that partition, I thought: these words are like hieroglyphs, it’s really beautiful, I want to film that.
NOTEBOOK: That dance notation is so unusual looking, yet it is completely physically grounded in bodies and gestures. But you look at it and it’s like an abstract painting.
MANIVEL: Yeah. But it’s about weight, distribution of the body. It’s kind of technical, but I thought: okay, I’m going to do the same, my film will be the same as the character will do. [The women] will try to understand what’s behind these signs. And then they will transmit it between them, and then they will see it, and keep that emotion, and try and transmit it to the world. It’s a three-part structure, but I tried to find some kind of fluidity. Something like water flowing. Little by little it’s creating some kind of emotion, and power.
NOTEBOOK: Do you see it almost like adaptation? Each person takes this thing and transforms it when it enters them? The young girl, not a mother, tries to understand the piece and make it her own. The dancer and choreographer make it their own, interacting with their bodies. For everyone the story means something different.
MANIVEL: Yeah, sure. This is why I tried to work with different ages, different stories, different kinds of bodies. I really believe what Duncan said that dance doesn’t belong to anyone, something I truly believe in. And I believe the same about cinema. We need to put different people on the screen. It’s really important. I feel that there is like a superimposition between Duncan and all these women, and then it’s kind of weird because it creates something… traces? Like an energy going from the first shot to the last shot. They share this energy, they transmit it.
NOTEBOOK: How did you work to choreograph differently the first, with Agathe Bonitzer alone, and the second part, with Manon Carpentier and Marika Rizzi? Were you working with the same choreographer? How did you make these as two different interpretations?
MANIVEL: This is a very interesting question. I decided really quickly that all of them would learn the solo, and learn the dance differently, with different people. So Agathe is working with a girl who is a specialist of Labanotation, and they did the work on the piece together to learn the solo. It took three months for them, so it’s big work, and I never work with actors before my film. Never before we start to shoot.
NOTEBOOK: You don’t rehearse?
MANIVEL: Never. Never. We just shoot. I want to meet them when shooting, you know? But then, it was a dance and she needed to learn how to watch these signs. So we worked for three months and she did it. Then Marika, the choreographer of the second part, she learned it with an American dancer, who learned this dance from Duncan’s students. So there is something direct. Manon, the teenager, she learns it during the shooting. We dive into it and what I film is her learning…
NOTEBOOK: So for the second part, the rehearsals in the film are the rehearsals?
MANIVEL: Totally. And the last part, I showed the solo to Elsa [Wolliaston] two or three times, and said: okay, now, we stop. And one month later: what is your memory? What is your emotion with this dance?
NOTEBOOK: For that segment, in which you patiently follow Elsa’s journey from the dance performance to her apartment, I was thinking so much about the choreography of regular gestures. Just walking down the street, the weight of her body, the limp she has. It immediately made me think that moving through life is just dance in its own way. Did you work with her and her body movement in this “normal” part, or only in the choreographed dance she performs at the very end?
MANIVEL: The thing is, when the third part starts, we’ve had one hour of film before, one hour of gesture, one hour of words. Duncan is here, I believe Duncan is here; I believe all these women are here, and she’s watching the dance show. And she’s moved. So from there, there is some kind of mirror with the audience, and we go back to intimacy and go back to our hearts. I think we manage to do it. But I think on paper, with my co-scriptwriter, we were like: will this work? But we thought our concept was that whatever she will do, it will be a dance. Every movement of the sky, every light, will be dance. We really didn’t know why, but when we were writing it, the third part, we said together: we don’t need to do anything. We set up everything before. There’s a lot of energy, she just has to keep the energy and open it. It was really weird. Of course, I know I’m working with Elsa. And Elsa is a great artist, so I know I can trust her, and I know she has the capacity of keeping this energy and putting it back. But…
NOTEBOOK: It’s risky!
MANIVEL: Yeah, it’s risky. But it’s always risky. It’s the only way to make things, I believe. So I just say to her: you walk from there to there. And she really has trouble walking, it’s really, really hard for her. And I don’t say anything more. And she’s a great dancer. I said to her: just improvise the dance. Follow your emotion and your memories. And after, of course, I adjust. I say: you’re too quick. And she was really surprised because she’s a great dancer, she’s worked with many people, and she’s known to be very slow. She has that intensity of slowness. But I always say to her: you’re too speedy, you’re too fast.
NOTEBOOK: How did you go about casting in these three sections? Did you already know who you wanted? It seems like such a specific idea of each section, each person, each face, each body.
MANIVEL: Agathe [Bonitzer]: I met her one day at a party. She knows my films, so we just talked about it, and I thought that she’s very serious. She has that intensity. I thought, I want to work with you, so it was very quick. Manon, I saw her. She has Down syndrome, and she’s working with professional actors, but all of them have mental handicap. I saw a show in Avignon, where she’s in a great company. I knew from first sight that I wanted to work with her. Marika [Rizzi], I used to dance with her, ten or fifteen years ago. And since I’ve known her, I’ve always wanted to make a film with her. I knew someday I would make a film with her, she was always there. And Elsa, I did a film called The Lady with the Dog  with her. It was a great experience, so I wanted to work with her again. I have many memories of faces in my head, of people I want to film. I have other people I want to film, and I’m waiting for the next project.
NOTEBOOK: Can you tell a little bit about your production company? You’re producing your own work, which is not the norm.
MANIVEL: The thing is, when I made A Young Poet , I built that company, because to make A Young Poet I used my own money and I needed to have something structured. And I thought I would do that only for this film, because producing is a hard job. Then, I made the film, it worked pretty well, and I thought: why change the method? I did Le parc, I did The Night I Swam, I did Isadora’s Children with it. And now I have an associate, a friend who’s working with me, so now I’m more into the artistic side, and he’s more into production. The idea is to follow Cassavetes’s methods, Hong Sang-soo’s methods, Rohmer’s methods. I watch and I read about how these guys did it. I have a crew of... it depends on the film: A Young Poet was four people, Le parc six, and this film is six, sometimes seven. One person in sound, one or two people in image, me and two assistants. Always two assistants, and they can do many things. They can do set design, they can take care of the actors. And I want to continue working in that way.
NOTEBOOK: How does you producing your own work effect the making of these films?
MANIVEL: I have always been interested in production, and I have always believed that production is artistic. I don’t have any different experience. For me, it’s very natural that if we don’t have much money, I’ll change the shot, I’ll do it [another] way. If we don’t have that set because they don’t give us the approval, then let’s shoot another place. Ah, there is a nice place, let’s go. I always adapt. Always adapt. There is never something that blocks us, because we always find a solution. It’s the same when I work with actors. I never say to them: you are not good, you are not doing what I want you to do. Because I don’t know what I want them to do. I ask them something and they propose and I follow. It’s about reacting, and not being…
NOTEBOOK: …not forcing anything. It’s about being open.
MANIVEL: Yeah. I propose, but I need to see something to react, to be moved or not, to then say: ah, you should move that way.
NOTEBOOK: How do you work with your cinematographer? Your images are always so beautiful. The framing is always lucid and there’s such attention to light and color. Yet you make it look so simple.
MANIVEL: Maybe just one last thing on the production, as I believe there is a link to this question. In France, the way we work with my team is very different from everyone, I believe. There is less money—really less money, and so I think the economics is really important. Aesthetically, also. We try to build. We try to survive, I think. And I think my films are maybe talking a bit about that also. About the place of art, and the fact that something poetic. There’s something about how poetry can exist today in a very naive but good way. Not cynical. Like Isadora’s words, something about beauty, about artistic emotion. I think today in the society we are living in, it’s something no one talks about. I think there is more of a destruction of poetry. So going back to the past, to Duncan, gave me freedom to say: okay, I’m going to follow her, but I’m going to put it today. I wanted to make this film in fixed shots at the beginning, because it’s the way I worked or because it looks like it’s simple but it needs a lot of work to make a fixed shot which is alive. Which is always what I’m trying to do, neither formal nor austere. I said this to Noe [Bach], our very young director of photography. I discovered the solo by chance, I really didn’t know how to film it. It was a big challenge for me. It took me maybe two months, inside my head, not with the camera. How would I film this? It took me so much time, so much thinking about it. And we realized we needed to move, it was necessary to follow this gesture. It was very important not to cut the dance, not to be brutal with this gesture, this body. To have something… like the camera is searching. And so there is more fragility, I believe. It’s less perfect. There’s more imperfection. The style changed thanks to him, I believe, thanks to our dialogue. I had to trust him a lot. I’m a bit nervous on the set, and if I have something to say I always say it loud during the shot.
NOTEBOOK: During the action?
MANIVEL: During the action. I’m always talking during the action.
NOTEBOOK: Like a silent movie director.
MANIVEL: Yeah, I talk to the actors. And I say to them: never answer to me. I’m like a voiceover. I say to them: take your time. Don’t do it now. Take maybe three or four seconds and after, do what I ask you to do. Do that kind of gesture or move your head a little or watch the sky—very, very simple things that I put into a documentary process. And for this film, I did with the cinematographer, so I was always behind. Go to the hand, go to the face, don’t move. So it was kind of chaotic. I had to trust him a lot. But he gave so much, it was really exciting. And there are a lot of small mistakes and imperfections. And I like it a lot. It’s something more transparent. I have this film which is very structured and it looks like there everything is thought, but inside the shot there is something more fragile, more amateur.
NOTEBOOK: You provide a firm structure so that it can be loose and free inside.
MANIVEL: Exactly. And I also believe—as we talk about the image—that if you film things like a landscape, like a face, an object, the simplest way possible, that something will happen. In cinema school they say: something has to happen to this glass [picking up a glass on the table] because it’s cinema. But I believe if you force yourself to be more and more simple, there is something behind. And I try to do the same with these gestures. They are not just gestures. They have a history, which, for me, goes more. It’s not Duncan that created that dance for me. It’s going back to archaic gestures, tragic gestures, lamentation gestures. These kinds of gestures are from humanity. You have to trust that there is something behind a simple gesture.
NOTEBOOK: Because you’re filming dance, and especially because you’re filming rehearsals, does this mean that you have to be open to shooting more material? I feel like the possibilities are more fluid, it’s challenging to determine if you have filmed what you need.
MANIVEL: Exactly, you’re right. But at the same time, that’s the way I did it: long shots to capture something more natural. It’s what I did in all my films. So even if I do a fiction [film] I do the same kind of process: long shots, talking with the actors, trying, searching, changing ideas. If I have an idea in my head I try not to tell it to the actor, I try to talk about something else. And then they propose something, but inside my head I know what I’m looking for. It’s kind of vague. I think if you watch me work, if you watch my team work, you would think that we are amateurs, or that I’m not clear, that I don’t know what film I’m going to do. But I’m trying to follow a feeling that I had when I was writing. It’s not clear, but it’s pretty clear at the same time.
NOTEBOOK: Clarity is the process of finding what you want. Speaking of The Night I Swam, I’m wondering what you took from this incredibly unique production experience—shooting in Japan, co-directing, working without dialogue, and working with a child—what you took from that experience and brought to this film.
MANIVEL: Many things! Of course, I’m a director, I have a career or something, but I try not to be too strategic. You can film people just because you want to film them. You can make a film with someone you like, a friend, or someone I admire. Like Igarashi [Kohei, the co-director of The Night I Swam]. And we decided to make a film because we are friends. What was moving for me, having made that film, is that we managed to share our passion and to make a film together, and we are still friends. It can be very personal, it can be a very personal film, but you can make it with two directors. And at the same time, this film, Isadora’s Children, is very personal, but I made it with quite a lot of people, with my team. So we can share this experience. What can I say? Maybe I did the snow, I did the kid and the snow. Maybe I will not do it anymore, maybe it’s too hard [laughs]. It’s very difficult. And the kid, Takara [Kogawa]—you can’t force him. You have to let him live, and if he’s joyful you have to film a joyful, if he’s sad, then I follow. I really follow. And it’s a very nice feeling to not be in control, when you’re a director. To follow the elements, to follow what happens. I hope I can continue to dig that kind of path in my films.