Sveva Alviti in Dalida (Under the Milky Way)

Two restless, intractable talents dominate European biopics of female stars little known to the American public. Director Lisa Azuelos zeroes in on Dalida, the Egypt-born Italian singing sensation who thrilled Europe in a career that spanned ballads, yé-yé, and disco before her suicide in 1987. First-time director Stéphanie di Giusto focuses on Loïe Fuller, an American who decamped from the United States to France, bent on making her name in the wildly creative but treacherous world of belle epoque avant-garde dance. Not without flaws, both films will hold appeal to esthetes, divaphiles, and lovers of high-end cinematography and period design.


Though she had a career that spanned three decades and sold 170 million records, Dalida never really caught on in the States, so how can Americans get their heads around the Dalida phenomenon? Try comparing her persona to the soulful Barbra Streisand, the tragic Judy Garland, and even the earthy early Madonna. Dalida rides heavily on the willowy, angular charisma of Italian actress Sveva Alviti, gamely playing a doomed star in thrall to her music but dragged down by the pop machine and a string of destructive men.

It begins in Cairo, where cruel schoolmates and a family broken by World War II set young Iolanda Gigliotti on a heartbroken path. But singing brings out the girl’s beauty and spirit, and an escape to Paris kick-starts a career managed by a manipulative older first husband in cahoots with impresario Eddy Barclay (Vincent Perez). The sky’s the limit, and Iolanda, now Dalida, is on her way to the Olympia.

The movie crams a great deal of plot and people into its time frame, using montage to hustle viewers along the singer’s conquest of the charts (spinning records!) and attainment of international stardom (airplanes! champagne!). But stolen moments with lovers reveal intimacy and the longing for love in a fast, pitiless world. Not that those refuges endure. Dalida’s abandoned first husband kills himself. After blowing a cue at an important music festival, a brooding young protégé does the same. A liaison with an ultrasuede-clad impostor posing as a nobleman (a convincingly sleazy Nicolas Duvauchelle) ends in his suicide as well. No wonder the “Do not disturb” sign placed on a hotel door becomes a recurring motif.

Some of the scenes may veer close to camp for more demanding viewers, but the film soothes objections with yearning arrangements of classic pop songs on the soundtrack in Italian, Spanish, Arabic, and French—a playful duet with actor Alain Delon provides the cassis in the kir royale. Additionally, the meticulous period detail brings out the glamour of even questionable pop periods like the 1970s with a rigorous panache that most American movies just can’t match. If a life electric with tragedy, stardom, and legend thrills you, you may find Dalida rather magnifique.

Soko in The Dancer (Myriad Pictures)


A biopic on dancer Loïe Fuller, The Dancer takes bewildering liberties with the details of its subject’s life. Fuller was born in the suburbs of Chicago to American parents, so why give her a French father shot dead in the American West, fully clothed in a bathtub outdoors? Anyway, the conceit leads to some great shots and lets us know right off the bat that we are dealing with a mercurial subject.

The real-life Fuller made a name for herself at the Folies-Bergère when not hobnobbing with Auguste Rodin and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Her dance routines featured wings of billowing fabric, dangerous chemicals, and elaborate electric lighting effects, and the movie is at its best showcasing Fuller’s high-wire ambitions in a smoky, high-contrast palette. Singer and actress Soko deploys intense concentration playing a driven, willful young women who lives for her art. Gaspard Ulliel, so electric in 2014’s Saint Laurent, hovers as an effete aristocrat who may be more than just a patron to the pioneering American, and Mélanie Laurent radiates stern, watchful gravitas as a helper in the wings. She’d be perfect playing Fuller’s rival Isadora Duncan, unfortunately played here by Lily-Rose Depp, tentatively upspeaking in wimpy 2017 American English as if she’s stumbled in from some other movie altogether.

The film allows itself too many longueurs (especially in the romantic interludes) and ambiguities that interrupt the action. However, arty setups and bracing abrupt edits knock the story into unpredictable directions. For those who can handle slightly batty risk-taking, The Dancer winks with the energy of one of its illuminated dance contraptions.