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June 16, 2020



Karel Reisz - 1968
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

With four different versions, there is a question regarding some of the ellipses that take place in Isadora. The original release version was 177 minutes long, seen in December 1968 for an Oscar qualifying run. The film was subsequently shortened following negative reviews from the Los Angeles critics. The British release was 138 minutes, while the U.S. version was even shorter at 131 minutes. There is a "director's cut" that was supervised by Reisz, available only on VHS at 154 minutes. For reasons unknown, possibly due to quality of the source print, the blu-ray is essentially the British release version with a brief pre-credit scene added. That scene is of Isadora Duncan as a child making a vow of how she plans to live her life. Biographical films should always be approached cautiously, even more so films that have their own troubled histories.

Isadora was never meant to be in the mold of the traditional biographical film. It's more of a dream of the past. The structure is that of Duncan during her last days at a hotel in Nice, France, 1927, remembering her past. Reisz cuts between 1927 and various points in Duncan's life from briefly performing in a musical hall to Sousa's "Washington Post", jumping forward to one of her Greek inspired performances for a salon in Europe. In the scenes that take place in 1927, Duncan becomes infatuated with a mysterious man who drives a blood red Bugatti. When not narrating her memoirs to her frustrated biographer, she whiles away time with the reading of Tarot cards, with the death card pointedly removed from the deck. Those looking for fidelity to facts would have to look elsewhere, even while the film credits Duncan's autobiography and Sewell Stokes' biography as basis for the screenplay by Melvyn Bragg, Clive Exton and Margaret Drabble.

At one point we see Duncan imagining herself running and dancing through Greek ruins. There is also a shot of Duncan dancing on an empty, gray wooden floor which is finally revealed to be the stage on which she is performing. Credit does go to Vanessa Redgrave, who not only mimics Duncan's mannerisms, but is the one doing the dancing. Unlike some films from the time before computer magic, there is no cheating with cutting between close-ups of the star and long shots of a professional dancer identically dressed viewed from a distance. Here the dances are all Redgrave, with her final dance performance in the film seen full body. Reportedly, Redgrave trained for six months before filming. Redgrave did get Oscar nomination for her performance, and won the Best Actress award at Cannes in 1969.

The blu-ray features a commentary track by filmmaker/historian Daniel Kremer and director Allan Arkush. This is one of the better commentary tracks primarily because of the discussion of Reisz's use of the zoom lens, hand-held camera work, and editing. There is some discussion on Reisz writing about film editing, his history with the Free Cinema movement, and the impact his debut feature, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning had on British cinema. One digression has Kremer and Arkush discussing how film editing changed with new technology. In this pre-digital era, the change was from gluing together strips of 35mm film to the use of clear tape for splicing, which in turn allowed filmmakers to easily make the deliberately more fragmented films with jump cuts and flash frames. Elsewhere Kremer and Arkush point out the use of color in Isadora, and how the film fits in with Reisz's other work as well as some of the films made at the time of release. While most of the commentary is devoted to Reisz, Kremer and Arkush also make room to discuss Vanessa Redgrave, co-star Jason Robards, cinematographer Larry Pizer, editor Tom Priestley, and score composer Maurice Jarre. My only quibble would be that that the enthusiasm of Kremer and Arkush is such that they occasionally interrupt each other in mid-thought. Otherwise, a commentary track that may seem academic in description is a lively and knowledgeable exchange.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 16, 2020 06:24 AM