Françoise Sagan was one of the most controversial and incendiary figures in modern literature; a French virtuoso who penned her first novel at the age of 19 – Bonjour Tristess (Hello Sadness) – and saw it celebrated as one of the best ever written. The movie Sagan is not at all representative of its subject. Much like other recent biopics about universe-shattering writers (Creation and Howl), the film insults its central figure by not being brave enough to replicate or capture their innate electricity. Instead, it traps Françoise in a film so bland you would think it was depicting the lives of Isaac Funk and Adam Wagnalls and their attempts to publish a cheap, yet informative, encyclopedia.
Sylvie Testud (who was astonishingly good in Lourdes, but is reduced here to tics and affectations) stars as Françoise Sagan from ages 19 to 69. We meet her first as an impetuous young author. Soon, she’s a millionaire and international superstar, who spends the sixties and seventies in a haze of hedonistic delight: gambling away (and quickly winning back) her entire fortune; drinking; drugging; taking husbands, wives and lovers of various persuasions. But don’t expect Salo: The 120 Days of Sagan. Director Diane Kurys is content with implying the decadence, but never really showing it. I wasn’t looking for an R-rated, pansexual, Emmanuelle Writes A Book-style smutfest. But surely the life that Sagan lived could have been depicted in a more interesting manner than this?
And it’s not a case of the film’s drab, dismissive style acting as a metaphor for the boredom felt by Françoise amidst her unthinkable wealth. It’d be fine if Sagan herself were detached from her life – and she is – but the film is completely detached from Sagan! Kurys has no interest in depicting the woman; merely the events that occurred during her life. It moves at breakneck speed: suddenly she’s got a son, suddenly she’s got a coke habit, suddenly she’s broke, suddenly she owns a race horse and suddenly she’s dead. Uhh, didn’t she write some stuff too?
Perhaps the blame shouldn’t be laid entirely on Kurys or fellow screenwriters Claire Lemaréchal and Martine Moriconi. The original cut of the film was 180 minutes long, and shown as two separate parts on French television. Producer/distributor extraordinaire Luc Besson purchased the screen rights and produced a lean, 110 minute version. On paper, the fact that the film could endure such an extreme gutting and still make a lick of sense is a wonder. But look at the final product, and you’ll see that it is emotional pull, attachment and characterisation that have been excised in favour of exposition (if it ever existed in the first place).