October 5, 2010

According to Françoise Sagan, malaise and apathy are qualities belonging to the bourgeoisie. Where there is excess there is expectation of more excess and as such a constant feeling of lack, which then manifests into desire. But, if there is already excess then desire is misplaced, as so, we see malaise and apathy present themselves in its wake.

This, it seems, was the greatest problem in life and in writing for French novelist/playwright/screenwriter Françoise Sagan. At just nineteen she had her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse (1954), published under a pseudonym (her real name Françoise Quoirez) to shield herself from bourgeois peers and contemporaries who would no doubt find its content shocking. Most often when one hears the word “shocking” sexual themes or violence come to mind but what is so shocking about Quoirez’s writing – so shocking that it required her to publish under a pseudonym – is that it portrays the bourgeoisie as over indulgent, whimsical, spiteful, vacuous, indignant and most terrifying of all: so fanciful and self-righteous that they are unconstrained by even the limits of bourgeois control. The characters Quoirez creates are selfish, naive, rueful little girls; their written attributes and feelings subtly alluded to at every opportunity in this beautiful biopic; an opulent, pained picture of a remarkable yet deeply flawed woman: Sagan (2008).

Claiming from the outset that “What is most feared in secret is what always happens.” Sagan (brilliantly played by Sylvie Testud) fears the inevitability of dying alone. Living her life beyond even her own privileged means; “I loved excess”; Sagan spends and loves with careless abandon. Having had a full life of success and riches – believing herself to be free and able to do as she pleases from one impulse to the next – it is of no comfort to her when she is left with nothing but her vices and herself; and the words of her late lover which hauntingly resound, “You’re a prisoner.” A prisoner to her own misguided ingenuity, her cerebral affairs leave her with nothing but solitude. Weighting questions of interiority against fond and foul memory, she is no freer at the end of her life than she was when she started out, insolently declaring, “The law must adapt to us not the other way. Enough. How I destroy myself is my business.”

Centred around themes of isolation and self-destruction the biopic is less of an insight into a remarkable woman’s life and career (her work merely mentioned rather than explained in the film) than it is a reflection and meditation on the content and nuance of her writing; the final irony that her induction into the life she led is exactly how she must greet its end, “Bonjour Tristesse” (Hello Sadness). For anyone coming to the film without prior knowledge of her work, it may come across as yet another biopic about a famous person whose artistry manifested into a masochistic spiral of self-destruction. But to have read her words- the biopic is simply beautiful, portraying with great poignancy the essence of her early novels and the shocking themes that turned into a tragic life.

Sagan is released in Australian cinemas on Thursday October 7 2010 through Hoyts Distribution.


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