Diane Kurys has directed a film biography of rebellious French writer Francoise Sagan, titled simply Sagan. Perhaps inspired by the success of La Vie En Rose, a recent biopic of Edith Piaf, the new film stars Sylvie Testud (who played Piaf’s friend in La Vie en Rose), and follows the story of Francoise Sagan from the publication of her first book to her final days in Normandy.
Francoise Quoirez –- she took the nom de plume Sagan after the Princesse de Sagan, a character in Marcel Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu –- grew up in a moneyed family, first in Lyon, and then in Paris. An indifferent student, she was nonetheless fascinated by literature. Her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse, was published when she was barely nineteen years old. Bonjour Tristesse caused an immediate scandal in France, but despite the outrage of the bourgeoisie it climbed to the top of the bestseller lists. Sagan became a fixture on the French literary scene, known for her reckless lifestyle: drinking, drugs, fast sports cars, and gambling, and for her advocacy of sexual freedom in contrast to the traditional mores of France.
The movie Sagan depicts the author’s free-spirited (albeit self-destructive) path through life. She plows through two unsuccessful marriages, enjoying a well-financed vie de boheme, attending innumerable all-night parties and becoming sexually involved with both men and women. After her second marriage with Robert James Westhoff broke up, she lived for a long time with stylist Peggy Roche until Roche became ill and died. As Sagan ages, the movie shows her falling prey to flatterers and sycophants. In her later years she refuses to see her son Denis, and at the end of the film she is alone and dying, attended only by her housekeeper.
Despite all the partying, despite her chaotic life, Francois Sagan was surprisingly productive. She published over twenty novels and twelve pieces for theatre as well as novellas, memoirs, biographies and even scenarios for cinema. In the film we see her sitting on her bed in front of her typewriter, cigarette dangling from her lip, a bottle of Jack Daniels on one hand and a mirror full of cocaine on the other, pounding the substances and pounding the keys, a perpetually intoxicated hipster artist, much like a French literary Keith Richards. She had several brushes with the law due to drugs, and the royalties from her works are to this day impounded by the French government over a tax dispute in conjunction with a shady oil deal.
Seeing the movie made me want to read Bonjour Tristesse. I bought a paperback copy, a slim volume of only 154 pages. The story involves Cecile, an amoral seventeen-year-old, who goes on vacation to the south of France with her father, Raymond. Raymond is a widower who leads a life revolving around multiple affaires with women, usually short-lived. Cecile, despite her age, is fully aware of her father’s love life. Raymond has rented a well appointed villa, and Cecile, her father, and her father’s mistress of the moment, Elsa, depart for a month of sun and relaxation. The first days are devoted to sensual pleasure. They lie in the sun, they eat, they drink. Through the characters we feel the warmth of the sun and see the cool brilliance of the sea.
The idyll is interrupted when Anne, an old friend of Cecile’s mother (and Raymond’s dead wife), comes to join them. Raymond and Anne end up making love, Elsa is pushed out, and Anne and Raymond make plans to get married in the fall. In the beginning, Cecile admires Anne, because she has a certain confidence and poise that her and father lack. In keeping with her upcoming marriage to Raymond, Anne begins to take on the role of mother to Cecile. Cecile in the meantime has taken a fancy to Cyril, a twenty-five year old student who is staying at a neighboring villa. Anne catches Cecile and Cyril in the woods in a state of semi-undress, and then attempts to reign in Cecile’s passions, saying that this sort of behavior “will end up in the hospital”.
Cecile rebels against Anne’s motherly directlion after Anne tries to force Cecile to spend time studying for her baccalaureate instead of seeing Cyril, Cecile plots a way to break her father and Anne apart. Cyril and the cast off Elsa begin masquerading as lovers, provoking Elsa’s father to see her one more time, resulting in tragic consequences for Anne. What shocked France at the time of this book’s publication was the depiction of Cecile’s permissive family life -– she and her father were more like buddies than father and daughter. Even more shocking was the fact that Cecile had sex with Cyril not because she was in love with him, but because she enjoyed the pleasure of their love-making. This was scandalous to French society in the religious and morally strict pre-pill 1950s.
The amorality and sensualism of the characters seem less shocking today. The novel is written in a matter-of-fact, existential style that evokes Camus. The characters feel –- the sun, the sea, sex, gambling at Cannes, riding in fast automobiles. They don’t think. Cecile experiences guilt for her actions, but once in the languor of the sun the guilt evaporates. Things happen and are accepted. It still seems a bit shocking that a seventeen-year-old in the 1950s was capable of such behaviour, but we understand her character and the consequences of her actions. The psychological study of Cecile is very satisfying, and her relationships with her father and Anne are well drawn.
Bonjour Tristesse stands today as a fascinating look at a France that no longer exists. It is an invocation of an era, of a time when young people were beginning to seek freedom from the strict bourgeois society of France after the end of the Second World War. In this sense, the novel is similar to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. On the Road is a weightier novel than Bonjour Tristesse, but it too opens a window into the mores of its country in the 1950s, and shows the era through the eyes of characters who no longer accept those mores.
The book is worth reading, and I also highly recommend the film Sagan. It concentrates on the scandalous aspects of Francoise Sagan’s life, but offers nevertheless a fascinating look at a complex person, and Sylvie Testud is excellent in the title role.