Movie Review: A French Chanteuse’s Sad, Sad Life is laid bare in “Dalida”

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In America, we have been known to eat anything fried, to queue up for the films of Adam Sandler and the endless “Farewell” tours of Cher and KISS.

And in France, they still savor the taste of snails, and never quite lived down a mania for Jerry Lewis and too many atrocious pop stars to count.

“Vive la Difference,” as they would say, and they’re right.

Which is the most diplomatic way I can think of to deliver a backhanded slap at Dalida, a 1950s through disco era French obsession celebrated as much for her tragic life and death, which echoed that of the indisputably great Edith Piaf.

Born into an Italian musician’s family living in Egypt, she became a star in France, and sold millions of records all over the world in French, Italian, Spanish, Arabic and apparently German.

The tunes? French originals, often of the syrupy ballad or novelty tune variety, and a never-ending parade of insipid, thin-voiced covers of English language hits from the likes of Cher, The Moody Blues and whoever made “I Wish You Love” (She dueted with Johnny Mathis once on this one) a pop “standard.”

“Dalida” is an absurdly long, jaw-droppingly tragic and soapy film of her life, which was cursed with the trauma of her father’s arrest during World War II (an Italian in British Egypt, he was accused of Axis sympathies), lovers who took their own lives, an abortion that took away her chance of having children, and her own suicide attempts.

Svelte Sveva Alviti looks enough like the real singer, whose real name was Yolande Christina Gigliotti, to accept the title role. But her colorless, charisma-free  performance matches the underwhelming songs she lip-syncs to. It’s a strained, dull movie that begs the non-French response, “I don’t get it.”

The film is set, mostly, in the aftermath of a suicide attempt. Her young Italian lover– a struggling singer– has taken his own life, and she’s decided to do the same.

Her producer, who took the name “Orlando” (Riccardo Scarmacio), her first manager, the ex-husband who made her a star (Jean-Paul Rouve) and others are kept at a distance, interrogated by a doctor who wants to know how to “rekindle her zest for life.”

Through them, and Dalida’s own sessions on a psychotherapist’s couch, we see the story of her life — her father’s arrest in Cairo, her Egyptian beauty-pageant big break, arrival in France and ensuing stardom, and all the broken love affairs, career challenges and phases her fame went through.

There’s the standard threat from her ex, whom she ditches just as she gets big, in French — “What I make, I can break.”

“You think I need you to exist?” she sneers back.

Her Paris Olympia Theatre triumphs, her efforts to prop up this younger lover or that one (Nicolas Duvauchelle makes a strong impression as “St. Germain,” a particularly weird self-promoting toy boy hustler), many of them are laid out in this survey of her life of sadness.

How sad?

“The hardest thing between life and death is choosing life,” she sighs. “Death is sweet.”

There’s no getting around what a rough time Dalida had, in between the curtain calls. There’s a hint of Judy Garland or Maria Callas in her bad luck and bad taste in men.

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But the title performance, the awful lip-syncing, the utter lack of stage presence, cripples this movie in ways no mere maudlin cover of “Nights in White Satin” in Italian could.

The flashback structure, a well-worn device long before Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for playing Piaf, gives the picture a lurching forward progress that barely qualifies as “advancing the plot” at all.

Co-writer director Lisa Azuelos is content to serve up snippets of shows, TV appearances in disco wear, love scenes that generate no heat (It’s almost chaste enough to play in her native Egypt.) and inane bickering over her future with her entourage bracketed with montages of her radio, LP, TV, concert and film triumphs.

That may play in France, where Dalida is remembered and, one assumes, loved. But even trolling through youtube videos of the real deal, who had great stage presence and later in life, a darker, more interesting voice, can leave those who are not French, Italian or Egyptian a little lost.

Why did they latch onto this banal beauty in the first place?

1half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated, with violence, suicide, nudity

Cast: Sveva Alviti, Jean-Paul Rouve, Riccardo Scarmacio, Alessandro BorghiNicolas Duvauchelle

Credits:Written and directed by Lisa Azuelos, with script assistance from Orlando and Jacques Pessis. A Pathe release.

Running time: 2:04

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