A free woman defeating society conventions, hypocrisy and behaviours, Isadora Duncan broke the rules of classic ballet and introduced new life into an exhausted art form, opening the stage curtain to modern dance. A proto feminist and scandal maker Isadora lived adored by both men and women. She was regarded as a model to follow, imposing new trends not only in dance but in fashion and lifestyle as well. Who disliked her, did it out of envy for this beautiful young woman, achieving success with her charm and bravura.
Karel Reisz was one of the funders, with Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson, of the free cinema movement that like nouvelle vague in France, was storming the English film business using new techniques and styles to change the approach to filmmaking. An unconventional director for a peculiar character, looked like a perfect match, and in 1969 the movie Isadora was released to critical acclaim with Vanessa Redgrave in the main role.
The movie faithful follows Duncan’s life omitting just few aspects of her personality (there’s no trace of her declared bisexuality) and it’s a great artistic achievement as well as technical. Reisz, whose editing theories have been summarized in a book dated 1953, approaches the subject matter with a storytelling that fractions episodes of Duncan’s life and mix them together jumping from past to the present day (an older Isadora is writing her memoirs just before her death). This choice is a winner, as the movie avoids the typical structure of the biopic usually following the celebrity from the rise to the fall. It was uncommon specially in the 60’s, while today we have seen this kind of approach used many times. The memories rising from the past, seen today through an elder Isadora’s eyes, let us feel all the pain, the regret, the sorrow of some tragic events of her life, like her children’s death in a car accident, but even the joy, the success, the passion she had while loving her work and the people that surrounded her.
It was the right way to go, also because there’s no real fall in Isadora’s life. Even full of debts, living out friends’ compassion and support in her later years, she has always been up to something new, and God only knows what she could have done more, if her sudden and bizarre death (her scarf entangled to the wheel of a sport car she was riding, strangled her) would have stopped her.
This is a figure of mythic proportions that only one of the greatest actress of our times could have delivered in the proper way.
Vanessa Redgrave at the peak of her talent and beauty, was a natural choice. Muse of free cinema, having being married to Tony Richardson, Redgrave offered a memorable performance, the one that could define a career. She won the Palm d’Or for best actress at the Cannes film festival for this role and honoured best actress 1969 from The National Association of Film Critics (US).
There’s so much in common between the two, being free, involved with politics and extremely talented; and it’s amazing to see how well Redgrave renders Isadora from early years till her death, using just a slight change in makeup and clothes. She’s a natural Isadora as I said, so believable you almost think it’s the real one acting in the movie; even because Redgrave does her own dancing without any body double’s help.
Reisz and his cinematographer opted for a reddish Eastmancolor to light up the scenes with the passion that was driving Duncan’s life and political belief (a declared communist she proclaimed during a show wearing a red drape: “This is red! So am I!”).
The movie is first time available on DVD courtesy of French distributor Doriane Film in a Pal region 2 disc; original audio in English with removable French subtitles.
Officialy licensed from Universal, Doriane DVD is a beautiful rendition of the original film with a nice extra: Maja Plissetskaja (star of the Bolshoi) and choreographer Maurice Béjart discuss Isadora dancing.
Unfortunately nor the cast neither the crew of the film have been interviewed. The DVD aspect ratio is 1.78:1 16X9 enhanced, even if on the cover is stated 1.66:1 (OAR) and shows just few specks and dirts on the original film materials, that have been digitally remastered.
Being said this, the only concern is about the running time.
The movie was shown at festivals and in its first run at 168 mins. Universal cut it down at 138 for general re-release later (The loves of Isadora). In the late 80’s Reisz edited a director’s cut at 153 mins. While the cover reports a 144 mins. running time, the movie runs actually 134 and considering the 4% Pal speed up, it is in fact the 138 Universal cut. I mailed Doriane about this and they did confirm the latter cut was the only one remastered available.
But even in a shorter form than the director envisioned, the film is worth watching, if it was only for Redgrave’s performance and for Reisz’s style and his unique editing that was so appreciated in the past.
Karel Reisz is another director whose star is fading. His great success of the 80’s The French Lieutenant’s woman, seems long time forgotten since his death in 2002. This is a good chance to go back to his work, watching one of his best films that has been long unavailable in a proper format. I suggest also for those not familiar with his work: Saturday night and Sunday morning, Morgan: a suitable case for treatment, Who’ll stop the rain.
Film mass is ended you may go in peace