Saturday, June 19, 2010

Diane Kurys' SAGAN premieres at FIAF, as part of the Sylvie Testud festival

TrustMovies does not usually cover films that his readers will not be able to view, but he's making an exception for this one: SAGAN, the movie by Diane Kurys (shown below) about French literary sensation of the mid-20th-Century Françoise Sagan.  This writer (née Françoise Quoirez, but according to the film, her parents preferred that she use a pseudonym) was probably as "famous" -- if not important or talented -- as any to come out of France in the last 75 years, and for that reason alone (plus the fact that her death probably made this project a bit easier) a film biography was inevitable.

"Sagan," together with her new name, burst upon the French literary scene in 1954 at eighteen years of age with her first published novel Bonjour Tristesse. Today, a young lady of this age writing a novel that deals with sophisticated adults and/or teens partaking in sex and other delights would hardly cause a ripple in the waters of our culture. Mid-century, however, the chattering classes declared themselves shocked. (I'm trying to think of some current equivalent, but the only example I can come up with might be Lady Gaga -- who is decidedly non-literary and part of a culture that, in terms of intelligence, has deteriorated noticeably over fifty years and for which the ability to "market" has far surpassed the ability to produce art.)

Three of the writer's first six novels were made into American motion pictures, all with some minor degree of success: Preminger, ever with an eye on what might push the envelope, directed Bonjour Tristesse (released in April of 1958); Jean Negulesco directed the filmed version of  Sagan's next novel, A Certain Smile (which hit theaters just three months later and about which most Americans of a certain age will remember only Johnny Mathis crooning the title song); and finally Goodbye Again (1961), directed by Anatole Litvak from the Sagan novel Aimez-vous Brahms?, in which Ingrid Bergman, Yves Montand and Tony Perkins starred in a love triangle.

After these these films, Hollywood lost interest in Sagan's work, and America mostly did, too.  And why not? At that time both Hollywood and America were still unable to come to terms with anything close to the acceptance of humanity's foibles and needs, particularly where sex was concerned.  Yet in France the woman continued writing fiction, plays, and works both autobiographical and even biographical (on Bardot and Bernhardt!) until her death from a pulmonary embolism in 2002 -- at which point she had becomes something of a national icon/scandal. Known for her extravagant lifestyle, she was also addicted to a number of drugs along the way and was arrested for cocaine possession in the 1990s. (The film includes this, prefaced by a particularly witty scene that, according to Wikipedia, actually happened.)

Why would younger Americans want to learn about Sagan? (At this point only America's senior citizens or Francophiles among us know her and her work). Again, why not? She was a "celebrity," and I suspect, even in France, known as much for that status as for any other.  Her life was quite something, too -- at least what we see of it Ms Kurys' film, which (we're finally getting the point of this post) is actually a very good example of smart, paint-by-numbers, celebrity biography movie-making.  So good, in fact, is Sagan the movie -- beautifully filmed and acted, while ontelligently covering all the important bases (I went on Wikipedia to discover that Kurys includes nearly all the biographical points mentioned there, plus a lot more) -- that it rivals in skill and intelligence both of the two recent movies (Fontaine's and Kounen's) about Coco Chanel. (Chanel, of course, was a fashion icon, which trumps literature in our society every time.)

Sagan's story is full of easy living, good friends, a somewhat distant family (except for her brother) and a good deal of bi- and homosexuality, which would have made it much more shocking in its own day; even now the behavior on view seems surprisingly open for its time.  Co-written by Kurys, Claire Lemaréchal and Martine Moriconi, the screenplay is necessarily telescoped to fit a two-hour format. (There is also a two-part, three-hour version made for French television that undoubtedly featured more detail, but I found the shorter adaptation an acceptable biopic.)

We see Sagan grow from a clearly talented, questing  late-teenager to overnight success -- which she handles, as do most of those gifted with this curse, badly. But since bad behavior is usually more fun to observe that the saintly type, the movie is often captivating. And its screenplay is full of witty, ripe dialog that the actors chew on with great finesse. Kurys occasionally intersperses newsreel footage with her narrative, and this make a nice mix -- especially due to her choice of the actress who plays Sagan.

In Sylvie Testud, the French star to whom FIAF is devoting its June Cinema Tuesdays program, Ms Sagan comes to compelling life. The author was no great beauty and neither is Ms Testud, but the actress possesses such charisma and versatility that no matter what character she's playing, she brings it to complete life. And with a role as juicy as this one, we can expect -- and get -- the works.  Testud is a little old for a high-schooler, but she manages the youthful Sagan damn well, then goes on to adulthood, middle-age and senior citizen (the writer lived till nearly 70) with commitment, flair and some great aging make-up. In the photos above, with the young Testud on the left and the middle-aged Sagan on the right, I think you can note a similarity in everything from the steady gaze to the straight nose, thin lips and short hair.  It 's a good match, both looks- and temperament-wise.

She is surrounded by some first-class French actors, as well -- from the marvelous Jeanne Balibar, above, left, as fashion stylist Peggy Roche to Arielle Dombasle as her later partner Astrid (which I suspect is a stand-in for Annick Geille).  The men in her life -- dancer Jacques Chazot, writer Bernard Franks, and Guy Schoeller, a publisher whom she later marries, are played respectively (and quite well) by Pierre Palmade (below, right), Lionel Abelanski (below, center) and Denis Podalydès.  

All told, Sagan is such fun, bringing us up close and personal to a fascinating writer whom most of us know little about, that it's sad to think most Americans will never get the opportunity to see it.  It's a shame that it can't at least appear On-Demand or on DVD, where, given the American appetite for celebrity and scandal, not to mention an older audience who would welcome learning more about an author they knew and perhaps loved in their youth, and foreign film audiences who already have a soft spot for Balibar and Testud, the movie might very well pay for itself.  Are you listening, IFC?

A note to Testud-ophiles: There are only two more weeks left in the June Cinema Tuesday fest, which offers a chance to see this actress in the very interesting La France by Serge Bozon and Chantal Akerman's La Captive.  Click here for more details.

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