No one today can remember what it was like seeing Loie Fuller perform the Serpentine Dance at the Folies Bergère. Her last performance of any kind was in the mid-1920s, and her dancing heyday was at the turn of the century. Films of the time can barely capture her movement, let alone the son et lumière of the recital.

But French filmmaker Stéphanie Di Giusto does her best to recreate not only the sensation but the emotion – midway through La Danseuse we see Fuller (played by the singer Soko, who bears a startling resemblance) take to the stage in billowing silk robes, creating a whirlwind of movement illuminated by coloured electric stage lights, and backed by the haunting strains of Vivaldi’s Winter concerto. By the end of the performance, she collapses from exhaustion. So may the viewer.

It’s an awe-inspiring spectacle, and it helps anchor what is too often a somewhat staid biopic. Based on the novel by Italian art critic Giovanni Lista, The Dancer sometimes plods along with a then-this-happened-then-that-happened metronome beat. We see young Fuller growing up in the American West – apparently a bit of artistic license, as she in fact was raised in suburban Chicago – and then moving to Paris to pursue her art.

And my, does she suffer for her art! Constant training is needed to carry her heavy, voluminous costumes, and by late in the film, her eyes are damaged from all the stage lighting. Never mind that younger dancer Isadora Duncan (Lily-Rose Depp) literally waltzes into the picture and threatens to upstage the sometimes retiring Fuller.

Those more aware of dance history that I have complained that The Dancer, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016, bends the truth too much under its “based on a true story” rubric. Seems the screenplay made up Fuller’s sort-of benefactor – she robs him before leaving for Paris, and in typical French fashion when they meet again he suggests they make love and call it even. Also, her dad wasn’t a French-born gold prospector.

But as pure drama, the movie is still solid if stagy fun. Though I wish it had shown even more of Fuller on the stage. Her art was the stuff of legend, and needed no fictional embellishment.

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