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Bonjour excess

18 November 2009
Published in Attualità, Culture, Opinioni
by Giovanni Biglino

saganDuring the course of the 17th edition of the French Film Festival UK , alongside with a retrospective of Jacques Tati’s filmography and a homage to Jean Eustache, another iconic French personality has been honoured: Françoise Sagan. In recent years several French symbols have had their bio-pic and in fact Marion Cotillard has interpreted Edith Piaf, Audrey Tatou was Coco Chanel, while Romain Duris played Molière. So Sagan’s turn came.

Born into a well-to-do family in the Lot region, Françoise Quoirez took by storm the cultural establishment of France in 1954 with the acclaimed and controversial novel Bonjour Tristesse, published under the pseudonym Sagan (inspired by one of the characters in Marcel Proust’s Recherche, the Princesse de Sagan). International bestseller and shortly after made into a movie interpreted by David Niven, Jean Seberg and Deborah Kerr, the story is set in the nonchalant atmosphere of the French Riviera where hedonism and frivolity meet with darker thoughts in the mind of spoilt teenage Cécile. Those were the initial years of the Nouvelle Vague.

The movie Sagan, directed by Diane Kuris, covers the time span of half a century, from the stardom year 1954 until 2004, when an old, fragile and impoverished Françoise Sagan died of a lung embolism. Her life has all the elements of tragedy and romance: immediate success, the first triumph turning almost into a curse, marriages, lovers, an estranged son, drugs, alcohol, luxury, beauty, solitude. The movie opens in Honefleur, in 2004, with a reporter trying to sneak a photograph trough the wooden gate of Sagan’s mansion, le manoir du Breuil near Équemauville. An enthusiastic young girl, she was known by the nickname of charmant petit monstre (charming little monster). Androgynous in her looks, with short hair and slender figure, she lived the success of Bonjour Tristesse with a cheerful attitude, at the same time conscious and blasé. Her places (Deauville, Paris, Saint-Tropez, Honfleur), her sportcars. Following a car accident at the wheel of her Aston Martin, she was in a coma for some days. Once she recovered, she quickly married publisher Guy Schoeller. The marriage lasted only three years and two years after her divorce she married the American sculptor Robert Westhoff, with whom she had her only child, Denis. Like Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson or Paul and Jane Bowles, Françoise and Robert also had same sex relationships outside their marriage and following their separation. In fact, Sagan’s most faithful companion was Peggy Roche, ex model for Givenchy and later herself a stylist.

We follow Sagan into her descent in drug and alcohol abuse, her difficult (almost inexistent) relationship with her son, her financial problems, her respiratory accident while on a state visit to Colombia with President François Mitterand. Later Peggy Roche dies. In the last years of her life, Sagan was practically ruined and was involved in the financial scandal known as Affair Elf . It was only the support from her wealthy companion Ingrid Mechoulam (Astrid, in the movie) that allowed her to keep her mansion, where she died in 2004. A few years earlier she was asked to write her own epitaph: “Sagan, Françoise. Fit son apparition en 1954, avec un mince roman, “Bonjour tristesse”, qui fut un scandale mondial. Sa disparition, après une vie et une œuvre également agréables et bâclées, ne fut un scandale que pour elle-même” (Sagan, Francoise. Appeared in 1954 with a slender novel, “Bonjour Tristesse”, which was a worldwide scandal. Her death, after a life and a literary production both pleasant and botched, was a scandal only for herself).

fff-uk-2007-sagan-sylvie-testud-signingSagan is brilliantly interpreted by Sylvie Testud (also a theatre actress and a writer). A long preparation in the study of the character is evident: the voice, the gestures, the gait, the whole attitude. Instead of playing Sagan, Sylvie Testud had opted for becoming Sagan, conscious that the author and her myth are still alive in the public, especially in France, leaving little space for improvisation. Alongside Testud, the eclectic Jeanne Balibar (Ne touchez pas la hache, 17 fois Cécile Cassard, Va savoir) plays Peggy Roche, with her striking outfits and mellifluous voice.

Another character in the movie is the action of writing. The physical act of writing, the reason behind it, the urgency, its commercial aspect, the years of Existentialism. “Écrire est la seule vérification que j’ai de moi-même” (Writing is the only verification I have of myself). We see Sagan writing: in bed, surrounded by half-smoked cigarettes and half-drunk bottles of whisky; in the garden of her mansion; sitting with the typewriter on her lap. She writes. In fifty years of excesses she has also managed to publish almost fifty literary works, including novels, theatre plays, scripts, autobiographical writings.

The movie also provides an overview of fifty years of French history: the Nouvelle Vague; May 1968; the Manifesto of the 343 in which 343 women admitted of having had an abortion in 1971 including Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau and Françoise Sagan; Mitterand’s presidency. Interestingly during the movie, while Sagan, her second husband and her entourage are watching on TV the revolution in the streets of the Latin Quarter, one of the spectators comments: “This is the revolution” looking at their new way of living, just there, in that room. Less boundaries, socially and sexually.

The movie is not judgmental: neither compassionate for the suffering and the weaknesses of the writer, nor exalting her excesses. It portrays the lights and shadows of a complex character, of a woman that already at the age of 18, in the opening lines of the novel that made her Sagan, wrote: “A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sorrow. The idea of sorrow has always appealed to me, but now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I have known boredom, regret, and occasionally remorse, but never sorrow. Today it envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, and sets me apart from everybody else”.