There are many stories concerning the life of the 18th-century French spy Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée, more succinctly known as Chevalière d’Éon. Most popularly, d’Éon is said to have been born in a French village, entered the King’s service, and was sent to Russia undercover as a young woman. After spending 10 years in subterfuge, d’Éon presented as a woman for the rest of their life. Yet others reject this narrative, stating d’Éon lived a life of military achievement; and even d’Éon’s autobiography, which breaks the gendered rules of French language, says something else altogether.
For Madison Bycroft, what’s interesting is how these ‘truths’ are contingent, and are stretched to accommodate differing narratives, political motives and agendas. Rather than creating a work about d’Éon, Bycroft has created a film that uses d’Éon’s memoir to investigate biography itself. “I’m interested in biography and how we tell stories about other people because it’s one of the most direct ways of making a relation to another person, in an artistic form,” they explain.
While Bycroft acknowledges a contemporary tendency to narrate people’s lives in comfortable yet limiting frameworks, the artist is interested in alternative ways of storytelling, more attuned to the unknowability of personhood. In the film Bycroft references d’Éon’s life through three central characters, foraying into the surreal. The film’s costumes are all 18th-century European regality, with classical wigs and painted faces, but the tone is mystical, the lighting dewy, and the narrative non-linear.
By researching d’Éon’s life, Bycroft presses on how we might conceive identity: that a person is never reducible to one identity marker. “It’s trying to think about how identity can exist for a person without us articulating it for them,” says Bycroft. “It’s finding the edges of a character, or the space outside of character, without trying to delimit or explain, or describe who, that person is or was.”