Against all advice, from both professional and amateur critics, and even though I have no fondness for the country of France, I belted off to see Sagan, the biopic about, of course, the writer of the same name. (I’d love to describe it as ‘new’, or even as a film, but it was actually made in 2008, as a television miniseries.) I was first in the non-existent line at the box office, because I pretty much always derive at least some enjoyment from a biopic, as long as it’s not about, say, an athlete.
As I’m sure most people would be aware, Françoise Sagan was the author of the at-one-time-scandalous novel Bonjour Tristesse, which was published in 1954, when she was eighteen. This is where my customary ignorance comes to the fore, though, because, insofar as I’d ever thought about it, I hadn’t actually realised she’d written anything else. I’d always vaguely been under the impression that Sagan had achieved my fondest dream of writing a massively successful book at a young age and then just sitting back and taking it easy, but she, in fact, did have many other works to her name.
I read, and enjoyed, Bonjour Tristesse some years ago. Partly I enjoyed it because of the impression that reading books in translation unfailingly gives me that I’ve actually mastered the tongue in which they were written, even though nothing could be further from the truth. I also, however, remember relishing the action that took place within the book’s pages. I recall that it involved a young girl’s much-loved glamorous playboy father remarrying and the girl hatching a plan to make her stepmother think he’s been unfaithful, after which the stepmother commits suicide by crashing her car, which, both then and now, seemed to me to have been a gross overreaction.
En route to the cinema, I had an attack of nerves about whether I was going to be able to pronounce the name of the film properly when purchasing my ticket. I remember that when I saw The Last Days of Chez Nous, a friend of mine took the simple course of asking for a ticket to ‘The Last Days of Whatever It Is’ but I couldn’t think of any way to weasel out of trying to pronounce ‘Sagan’. Suffice to say, that once the film started, it was immediately apparent to me that I had, indeed, pronounced its title wrongly and that the person at the box office must have thought I was an idiot, particularly as I’d really tried to use a French accent. I then wasted at least thirty minutes wishing that I’d consulted the Internet beforehand as to how to pronounce ‘Sagan’. But, in a spirit of onwards and upwards, I eventually settled back into my chair to do a spot of vicarious living.
There’s certainly something to be gained from watching Sagan, if only that it’s impressive to see a woman pulling off the look of teaming a turban with a pair of enormous eyeglasses. Also, the many people who profess to be crazy about the French as a nation, will, I’m sure, get a kick out of seeing its countrymen and women ruminating with straight faces that ‘Freedom cannot be defined’ and that ‘Men always let you down, pussycat’, not to mention asking ‘Have you seen my Second Sex?’. Furthermore, there are many scenes of glum walks on cobblestones in beastly Paris. Less happily, having to listen to ‘One Night in Bangkok’ being played during the action at a party, which is, presumably, peopled with a number of the cleverest people in the nation, makes it clear once again that the French have never had, and never will have, any grasp of pop music.
The biggest barrier to enjoyment of Sagan, though, is that the woman herself appears to have been a sulky-faced bag right from her teenage years through to her relatively-late-in-life demise at the age of sixty-nine (the relatively-late-in-lifeness I found inspiring, given the massive amount of smoking, drinking and illegal drug taking upon which she had gamely embarked). There’s nary a moment when Françoise is pleasant company or has a polite word to say to anyone. Almost the only time she shows good humour is when her small dog inadvertently reveals an enormous stash of cocaine during a police raid. And never is it really revealed why she’s so perpetually ill-tempered, nearly killing several of her loved ones by driving too fast when she’s in one of her snits, not to mention storming out of book signings and making pronouncements such as ‘No one cares about my work, not even the cat!’ (Why she would have expected the cat would care about her work is a whole other question.) One insight I did gain from the film is that Françoise Sagan might have been a little more cheerful had she learned to type more efficiently, given the endless scenes of her pecking away using two digits.
Coincidentally, I also recently watched, finally, the Edie Sedgwick biopic Factory Girl, having purchased it for a small sum. I had been excited to hear that the life story of Andy Warhol’s perhaps best-looking and most high-born ‘superstar’ had finally been committed to celluloid, something that had been talked of since the eighties. In those days, Warren Beatty had plans to be the puppet master of the project and, or so I’ve read, was mad keen for Molly Ringwald to play Sedgwick. Having watched Factory Girl and its accompanying documentary, it’s clear that Edie would have been irritating in her own way, given, aside from anything, her perpetual lateness for appointments, but I at least felt that I wouldn’t have minded overly much if she’d called me at three a.m. to have a whinge, as long as she didn’t make a habit of it. I’d certainly have been screening any calls from Françoise Sagan, on the other hand.
What I felt the lack of in Sagan and Factory Girl, and feel the lack of in so many biopics, though, is that no one in them really ever just has a normal conversation about how annoying it was when they dropped their watch on the floor and broke it, or happens to mention that they’ve eaten a particularly good sandwich. With both these works (and, again, I acknowledge that Sagan in cinema release has been cut down from miniseries length), if you try to imagine them as films about fictional people, they wouldn’t work at all, because they would seem so choppy and, frankly, bizarre. To my mind, biopics frequently spell out too much, while simultaneously seeming to rely on the viewer having prior knowledge of their subject and so being able to fill in any blanks.
I don’t care how dramatic a person’s life has been, it’s unlikely to have been ceaselessly dramatic; even Françoise Sagan and Edie Sedgwick must have had an ordinary day occasionally. It’s through such days, mixed in with the exciting highs and lows, that I would really have liked to try to get to know these two particular complicated individuals.