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Born in Egypt into an Italian family, Dalida reigned as one of France’s most famous singers from the late 1950s through the 1980s, with a repertoire of hits as vast and varied as her private life was tumultuous and tragic. A career and existence ripe for a biographical movie, then, and Dalida from French writer-director Lisa Azuelos (LOL) does try to pack in an awful lot in its two-hour running time. This might be part of the problem, however, as the glitzy drama succumbs to quite a few of the usual biopic-of-the-week symptoms, including a near-constant preference for plot and incident over any semblance of character psychology.
Still, this semi-superficial glimpse into a tragic and tortured life features a stellar impersonation — not quite a performance but an uncanny impression — by unknown Italian model-turned-actress Sveva Alviti, who is not only a dead ringer for the dead star but also, just like the title character, a charismatic force of nature that’s impossible to ignore. Beyond France, where it has charmed over half a million ticketbuyers so far, this rather conventional biopic could appeal to older audiences in the territories where Dalida was a name artist (she sold a staggering 170 million records worldwide).
The biggest tragedy of the life of Dalida (real name: Iolanda Gigliotti) was that she was a strong and independent entertainer ahead of the curve in her artistic endeavors but that — perhaps exactly because she was so conspicuously perceived as a strong and independent woman — she struggled to find any kind of similar success in her love life, with no less than three of her lovers committing suicide before she herself ended her life in 1987. This obvious contrast between her long and near-constant string of professional successes and the almost endless line of private failures (which also included an abortion) and death has all the makings of a strongly emotional tragedy, but as scripted by Azuelos and Orlando, the mono-monikered brother of the late star, these underlying connections and contrasts remain hidden in plain sight for the most part. (This is the kind of story that might have benefited greatly from not being told chronologically.)
Besides her career as a singer and actress — we see her on set, late in life, in Youssef Chahine’s Arabic-language drama Le Sixieme Jour — and her struggles to keep her family and lovers happy before herself, the Dalida that Azuelos and Orlando present is also someone who doesn’t seem to exist beyond her work and love life, as if she had no interests beyond entertaining and finding a partner. Of course, these two elements are what make her life compelling, but they were no doubt but two elements of a more complex personality which isn’t really visible here. Despite running just over two hours, there is almost no sense of who Dalida was beyond the private lover and the public performer.
Despite an early divorce after being wowed by a painter of Polish origins (Niel Schneider), it is said that Dalida’s biggest fondness was for her first husband, Lucien Morisse (Jean-Paul Rouve), who discovered her and nurtured her talent. But their love-hate relationship isn’t used as an overarching storytelling device, with Morisse finally but the first of several men who woo her or are wooed by her, including the young and tenebrous Italian singer, Luigi Tenco (Alessandro Borghi); the Italian student who got her pregnant (Brenno Placido, son of Michele) and a louche French high society member (Nicolas Duvauchelle) who pretended to be the “Count of Saint-Germain” that she inexplicably took a shine to. The only man in her life who is almost constantly present is her brother, Orlando (former Italian heartthrob Riccardo Scamarcio), who becomes her producer and tries to look after his sister, especially after her first suicide attempt after Tenco took his own life after failing at a song contest.
Though the quality of her output has varied, Azuelos has always been a strong director of actors, and that quality must have served her well when working with the little-known and not very experienced Alviti, who steals the show here in every single scene. Though it is impossible to say, solely based on this film, whether she’s a good actress, the performer is absolutely convincing as the chameleonic and moody pop star. The rest of the ensemble is solid but no one is a match for her, not even the dyed-in-the-wool bit players.
Technically, like all of the director’s films, Dalida is a highly polished product, right down to the star’s inimitable wardrobe and wigs.
Production companies: Bethsabee Mucho, Pathe Production, TF1 Films Production, Universal Music Publishing
Cast: Sveva Alviti, Riccardo Scamarcio, Jean-Paul Rouve, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Alessandro Borghi, Valentina Carli, Brenno Placido, Niels Schneider, Vittorio Hamarz Vasfi, Davide Lorino, Haydee Borelli
Director: Lisa Azuelos
Screenplay: Lisa Azuelos, Orlando
Producers: Julien Madon, Lisa Azuelos, Jerome Seydoux
Director of photography: Antoine Sanier
Production designer: Emile Ghigo
Costume designer: Emmanuelle Youchnovski
Editor: Thomas Fernandez
Music: Jeanne Trellu, Jaco Zijlstra
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