As far as biopics go, “Sagan” is a fragmented and unsatisfactory rendition of a brilliant, fascinating life.
Francoise Sagan, who died in 2006 at the age of 69, remains one of France’s most influential novelists. She was also among the most talked about literary celebrities of her day. Sagan’s debut work, “Bonjour Tristesse,” was written when she was 18 and within a few months earned over 500 million francs in royalties (which she subsequently went through as fast as she could write the checks).
Sagan’s writing career spanned four decades. She consorted with the likes of Jean Paul Sartre and Francois Mitterrand, and she was a confirmed gambler, compulsive drinker and chain smoker. She was addicted to morphine and was arrested for drugs and tax fraud, all in the same week. The French media dubbed her “the charming little monster,” and she lived her life like a testimonial to the phrase.
Some of that is touched upon in this film by Diane Kurys, but much of it is glossed over or just ignored. Kurys, famed for her bold and insightful depictions of women (see “Children of the Century”), seems uncharacteristically distracted.
Here was her opportunity as a French woman artist to pay homage to a kindred spirit. Instead, the film feels strangely distanced. On the other hand, “Sagan” is a lot like Sagan’s own novels — in both, the defining factor is an illogical, unexplainable discontent.
Sagan was a master at evoking romance and longing, but she always left her characters (and readers) stranded in a turbid sea of emotion while she — the narrator — pulled out as if the whole thing were a boring party. The movie reflects this trick of hers but overall, it worked better on paper than on the screen. But “Sagan” does form an intricate collage of exquisite moments, all the more memorable for their fleeting brevity.
Sylvie Testud inhabits the title role like a snug little LBD (little black dress) and indeed, she spends the first half of the film dressed in a series of black minidresses and elegant pumps. At a casino at dawn, she wins 8 million francs playing roulette and 10 minutes later purchases a splendid villa that once belonged to Sarah Bernhardt.
In another scene, she’s signing her books in a New York bookshop when she suddenly decides to fall in love — abandoning her publishers, she grabs her coat and the arm of the man who had nervously asked her on a date, and is out of the door in seconds. Testud re-enacts Sagan’s mannerisms and physical quirks (the oddly poignant habit of rubbing her brow and pushing her bangs away from her eyes but being too shy to look at people straight in the face) to perfection — even her voice is pitched to Sagan’s nasal lowness.
Sagan was a contradictory hodgepodge of extreme shyness and surprising audaciousness, a rebel who railed against her class but never quite stopped being the good little bourgeois. What surfaces most of all (via Testud’s skilled performance) is her colossal self-absorption. She didn’t give a hoot about anyone — not her numerous lovers (men and women), most of whom she treated with a certain fatigued tolerance, not her two husbands, not even her only son.
In real life, Sagan knew how to turn her megalomania into charisma and charm. In the movie she comes off as a woman encased in an armor of moody peevishness. In one sequence she’s walking along the beach with her son and when he asks why she failed to love him, Sagan turns away, looks at the ocean and says exhaustedly: “It was never meant to work out.” At least she was never a hypocrite.