SAGAN. Starring Sylvie Testud, Pierre Palmade and Jeanne Balibar. Directed by Diane Kurys. MA 15+ (Mature themes and drug use). 121 minutes.

It’s best to give a warning first of all.  This is an edited version for cinemas of a mini-series produced for French television.  Almost an hour has gone from the series for the film – which explains the lack of development of some characters (Sagan’s first husband) and surprise events (the burning of her house) which makes some aspects of the film less than satisfactory and creates some puzzles.  Better to watch the series if possible.

On the other hand, audiences may not be all that interested in the life and character of French novelist and playwright Francoise Quoirez who took the pen-name of Sagan when her parents didn’t want her to be known by their name.  With the novel that she wrote during a summer holiday, Sagan became instantly famous with Bonjour Tristese at the age of nineteen, something of a cause de scandale because of the themes and the relationships portrayed.  This was the middle of the 1950s.  She also wrote A Certain Smile and Au Revoir Brahms during the 1950s.  Though there is no mention of them in this cinema version of Sagan, Bonjour Tristesse, A Certain Smile (with the popular theme song from Johnny Matthis) became successful Hollywood blockbusters and Au Revoir, Brahms was filmed with Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Perkins as Goodbye, Again in the early 1960s.  So, she was not just a French icon but was well-known in the United States.

Critics referred to her work as minor music.  And that is a difficulty for this film.  Her life itself is really only minor music, at least as it comes across here.  She was an unhappy young woman and an unhappy older woman, involved in all kinds of relationships, the most successful not being her marriages (one to a homosexual) but her relationships with women.  She made a great deal of money but let it slip through her fingers extravagantly and at the end of her life had the indignity of a tax evasion case.  She did gather a following around  her.  Some liked her a lot, some were just hangers on.

Sylvie Testud is a wonderful French actress (La Vie en Rose, Lourdes) and is said to resemble Sagan.  She gives a fine performance, with all the nuances of both Sagan’s flamboyance and moodiness.  Though Francoise Sagan received a tribute from President Francois Mitterand, who did refer to her talent but also called her a monster, citing her as a national figure, unless you are French and patriotic or enamoured of her writings, this is minor music.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


Out October 7 2010.

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