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Film - Documentary

 

Sagan

Making Up the Past

sagan
Sylvie Testud plays the hard-living Françoise Sagan.
June 25, 2008

Following on the enormous success of La Môme (La Vie en Rose in English), which detailed the rise and fall of French singer Edith Piaf, we now have Sagan, directed by Diane Kurys, which details the rise and fall of French novelist Françoise Sagan.

Although they came from very different backgrounds – Piaf had a horrendous childhood marked by poverty and cruelty, while Sagan was the product of a well-to-do family – the trajectories of their lives once they achieved fame offer many striking similarities.

The cocky, rebellious Sagan (played by the talented Sylvie Testud), scored a stunning success with her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse, published when she was only 18 years old, and was lionized in both Europe and the United States. Her reaction is to run out and buy herself a Jaguar. We follow her as she lives it up and celebrates her success by partying in Paris and New York, accompanied by a faithful band of friends. After a couple of short-lived marriages (the second with a gay man with whom she has a son), she spends a drunken evening with a fashion designer acquaintance, Peggy (Jeanne Balibar) and ends up living with her. Later, another girlfriend, the domineering Astrid (played in an amusing turn by Arielle Dombasle), moves into her life.

Although Sagan never stopped writing and published novel after novel, none of them received the critical acclaim of her first brilliant book (there were even rumors that she hadn’t written Bonjour Tristesse herself, a claim we hear in the film). Eventually, like Piaf, she succumbed to alcohol and drugs. The sad end of each woman as depicted in the films is strangely similar, with both of them thin, bent and old before their time, living alone in a country house with only a servant for company. Hounded by the French tax authorities, Sagan was just about penniless after a lifetime of partying, gambling, drug-taking and throwing her money around.

This is not at all a bad film. It is absorbing throughout and tells its story well, but somehow it feels flat, as if something is missing. in spite of all the dramatic events. We don’t feel the full force of Sagan’s character or really understand why she had such a strong self-destructive streak (at one point, the morphine she is given in the hospital is blamed for her later drug problems, but lots of people are given morphine without becoming addicted).

Many other things are left unexplained as well. Several characters who had a strong presence throughout most of the film simply disappear near the end – presumably driven away by Sagan’s self-destructive bent, but we aren’t told this.

And what was Astrid’s interest in moving in with Sagan and running her life? Was she in love with her? There is no sign of that in the film. Did she want to bask in the reflected glory of Sagan’s fame? Not much glory was left by then. It couldn’t have been for money, since Sagan was already ruined and Astrid herself was a wealthy widow. And what about Sagan’s relationship with her son – we don’t get any feeling for what it was like, except vague hints of neglect (Sagan’s son, Denis Westhoff, served as a consultant on the film, which may explain this reserve).

An understated film makes for a nice change, but in many ways this one goes too far in its reticence. Is it because many of the people in Sagan’s life are still alive (Sagan died less than four years ago)? In that case, perhaps it would have been better to wait before making this film. Or perhaps it is due to the fact that the film was originally a two-part TV program, and the necessity of bringing it down from three hours to two for the cinema meant that some vital information ended up on the cutting-room floor. (The full three hours will be shown on French TV channel France 2 two months after the release date of June 11.)

A disclaimer at the end of Sagan notes that not everything in it is exactly true. While this is the case for most biopics, it is still very annoying not to know what really happened and what was invented by the filmmakers.

But what they can’t do with makeup these days! It is simply amazing how realistically the aging process was portrayed in La Môme and Sagan – taking both stars from smooth-skinned youngsters to aged physical wrecks with sagging skin and wrinkly necks. Bravo to the makeup artists!

Heidi Ellison

© 2008 Paris Update

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