Isadora Duncan

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 10, 2015

Starts with an antic fast-forward prologue that is suspiciously. doubtless/intentionally, reminiscent of the News on the March sequence in Citizen Kane. Welles’ and Russell’s films are actually quite similar. They are at the same time biographical, and gleefully cinematic, both bold and brave unto brash ostentation. It’s just about at this point in Russell’s career that his boldness will go into overdrive, as he is entering his late 60s-to-mid-70s tenure/prime/nadir as one of world cinema’s premiere shockmeisters. This will become a very deep end, and he will eventually go pretty well all the way off it. For a while though, that provocation will continue to feature glimpses, flashes, plain consecutive stretches of the bright innovation-unto-genius that had distinguished so much of Russell’s early directorial output.

Isadora Duncan is bold, but it is not yet, quite, bold just for shocking’s sake. As such there’s some real cultural relevance, and resonance here. The movie is not in any way a mere cultural curio; it is of its time, but it is not limited thereto. Isadora Duncan’s life, and Ken Russell’s take thereon, tells us about important things: the eternal battle between Conservation and progress, between abiding values and the potential they have for ossification and oppression. To continue the dialectical theme, as well as the implication that syntheses should be moderate and sensible, the film is somewhat naughty, but always with a purpose.

Add to this the fact that Isadora Duncan is quite adept, artistically speaking, and we should have a fairly considerable piece of work. But Isadora Duncan features a fairly considerable tonal inconsistency, and it’s at least a bit troubling. Actually, one suspects that it’s an intentional inconsistency, and that it’s essayed in the service of an actual vision. More troubling, then.

Russell’s film is very well put together, but to what end? Am I getting this right? His idea seems to be that the kooky Bohemians and the repressed Victorians (Edwardians, etc.) are both, in the end, contemptible. So, for that matter, is most everybody else that wonders in or out of the picture. Ridiculousness abounds, adding up to a society—which is also to say each individual within it—that isn’t just absurd and foible’d, but plain stupid.

That stupidity isn’t exclusive, or unrelieved. Isadora does have something to offer, just as the sensibilities that she counters leave much to be desired. Also, the film itself has craft justifications. Russell’s continues his revolutionary run of BBC biographies by the really canny, adventurous incorporation of numerous documentary devices. (Note the use of stock footage in particular.) He uses them both for the sake of signification and critique. He really is a most electrifying filmmaker. Ms. Vivian Pickles, as she brings her character to life, shows considerable courage. There’s some very good dancing on display, and in an appropriately unorthodox fashion.

And yet in all this there is something that is ultimately untenable, even unwholesome. In the end Duncan’s unorthodoxy is basically frivolous, maybe even meaningless. As it turns further toward its own methods and ends, that unorthodoxy becomes basically demeaning. Russell adds his own unorthodoxy to the mix, but it mostly serves an unpleasantly gleeful misanthropy. The dire conclusion to Duncan’s life—very powerfully staged—gathers all these things quite emphatically together. I guess they’re true, and I guess that’s right. But was it worth the trouble?