Sagan, 121 mins, rated M, opens in cinemas 7 Oct 2010.


(This is my review as  published in the October 2010 issue of The New South Wales Law Society Journal)

This French biopic is the story of Françoise Sagan, the playwright, novelist and screenwriter who blazed into the public eye with her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse, published in 1954, when she was just 19. The novel vividly depicted adolescent loneliness and emptiness, both shocking and delighting readers with its combination of emotional intimacy and subversive ideas. Sagan went on to publish more than 50 novels and plays, writing until almost the end of her life.

But Françoise Sagan partied hard and lived harder. She drank to excess, drove sports cars very fast, and became addicted to morphine. She gambled away fortunes and went through many lovers, burning bright like a comet and leaving emotional destruction in her wake. The French called her a “charming little monster”.

Sagan had several serious brushes with the law. In 1995 she was sentenced to a one-year prison term for possession and use of cocaine. In 2002 she was sentenced to another year in prison for tax evasion. But her health in later life was poor, and both prison sentences were suspended. Her name was also linked to the Elf Aquitaine corruption scandal, which resulted in what was France’s biggest corporate crime trial, concluding in 2003. Sagan was said to have received money in exchange for persuading her friend, French President François Mitterrand, to intervene to secure an oil contract in Uzbekistan. But Sagan claimed the money had come from an insurance payout as a result of her house burning down in 1991 (the fire is referred to in the film).

Sylvie Testud plays Sagan, and it may well be a career-defining role for her, just as Edith Piaf was for Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose (Olivier Dahan, 2007). We will soon see Testud again in an intriguing film, Lourdes (Jessica Hausner, 2009), playing a plain, disabled woman on a group excursion to Lourdes, in search of a miracle.

But for now, Sylvie Testud is playing the French literary icon who was born Françoise Quoirez, daughter of a wealthy industrialist, and took the pen name “Sagan”. Sagan died at the age of 69, so the story (and Testud’s performance) spans the 50 years of Sagan’s writing career. It’s a mighty effort by Testud to portray Sagan convincingly from precocious teenager to sick and ravaged in later life. It took five hours of make-up each day to achieve the aging.

Sagan was originally produced and shot as a two-part TV miniseries, with each part 90 minutes long. But French producer/director (though not of this film) Luc Besson saw it, bought the screen rights and had it edited it down to a two-hour feature film. This version of Sagan suffers from the change. The film now covers too many of the events in Sagan’s life in a shorter time, and becomes episodic. Many incidents are just sketched, so we don’t get an in-depth sense of emotion, or any real intellectual engagement. It makes the film feel longer than its two hours. It’s also a problem that non-French audiences are unlikely to recognise all of Sagan’s friends and associates, yet the film assumes a degree of familiarity.

It’s a shame, because the life of Sagan is a fascinating one, her work was very influential, and she remains a pillar of the French literary scene. There, she occupies the position between the traditional novel and the New Novel, and represents a new generation of writers “au féminin”. But the film is at its best in capturing the flavour of the passing eras, with the fashions, trappings and style of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s particularly well evoked. Sagan herself remains something of a cipher.

In a way, that might be inevitable. In her own writing, Sagan was apt to evoke romanticism and longing with great artistry, and then withdraw from her characters, leaving them to wallow in confusion and emptiness. This film seems to do the same. Here, Sagan is remote, distanced, and hard to connect with. She even holds her son at arm’s length. When he asks her why she did not love him, all she can say is: “It was never meant to work out”. Her world-weariness is chronic, and solitude is the one constant in her life.

Françoise Sagan was the archetypical teenage rebel in Paris in the 1950s: the Paris of existentialism, Sartre and de Beauvoir, and jazz. But Director Diane Kurys has tried to show her as a more complex character, who “tried everything, lost everything and lived half of the century with a carefree attitude and an arrogance that only poets can have”.