Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Diane Kurys
Stars: Sylvie Testud, Pierre Palmade, Jeanne Balibar, Arielle Dombasle, Lionel Abelanski, Guillaume Gallienne, Denis Podalydes, Samuel labarthe, Chantal Neuwirth, Gwendoline Hamon.
Biopics about writers are often difficult because the craft of writing itself is such an internal process that it doesn’t naturally lend itself to dramatic moments on screen. Such is the case with this rather dull biopic on Francois Sagan, a controversial but critically acclaimed and influential French author better known for her deeply romantic works that featured disillusioned bourgeoisie characters and contained existential undertones. Her first novel, published in 1954, was Bonjour Tristesse (Hello Sadness), a bittersweet tale of teenage sexuality which seemed to draw parallels from her own life. It was subsequently filmed by Otto Preminger.
This film covers some fifty years in Sagan’s tragic life, from the success of her first novel and her heady rise to fame, through to her death as a lonely, embittered and broke old woman in 2004. It concentrates on her dissolute life style – the drugs, alcohol, parties, scandalous love affairs and her conviction on tax evasion charges – but doesn’t provide much insight into the author herself. “How I destroy myself is my business,” Sagan says of her self-destructive behaviour. The French media dubbed her “the charming little monster,” which seemed to capture her complex and contradictory personality.
Sagan was originally filmed as a three-part mini-series for French television, but we are seeing a heavily re-edited two-hour version. And there lies the main problem with this film. Sagan is rather bland and superficial, and gives only a perfunctory look at her turbulent life. Nor does the film explore in detail the creative process and the novels and plays that made her a celebrated figure in French literary circles. There’s little of the famous wit and passion she displayed in her writing. Characters come and go without much explanation, complex relationships are examined only briefly, and the film is difficult to follow. Indeed, I forgot most of it as soon as I left the cinema!
However, French actress Sylvie Testud (La Vie En Rose, Lourdes, etc) is magnificent, and delivers a wonderfully accurate and haunting performance that gets inside the skin of her character. She captures Sagan’s mannerisms, mood swings, voice inflections and narcissistic personality perfectly. She dominates every scene, and her performance is the main reason to see this otherwise rather turgid and plodding drama.
Director Diane Kurys (C’est La Vie, etc) has adopted a fairly traditional approach to the material, and there are few flourishes or dramatic moments to sustain interest. This is a strangely muted and uninspired film from a director noted for her depictions of formidable female characters. Visually, the film is also more suited to the small screen rather than the big screen. However, the production crew has paid attention to period detail, with the costumes and settings all superbly evocative of a bygone era.
Ultimately, this biopic will struggle to find an audience, particularly as many of today’s generation will not have heard of Sagan or be familiar with her works.