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  • Ravi Swami

A Bit About Biopics...

I thought as a change from the usual straight film review of my first impressions of a film that I've watched over lockdown and recently, I'd look at a film genre that I'm always slightly wary of - the biopic.

Love them or hate them, biopics can vary enormously when they invariably focus on cultural "icons", that rather over-used word to describe actors or people who can seem saddled with an image resulting from a particular performance in a film or a song they've written or for a multitude of other reasons.

It prompts the question of do these so-called icons choose that moniker and status as a goal in life or is it imposed upon them by a society eager to freeze them in one particular image that more often than not ignores the multifaceted nature of people in general and of how they see themselves.

Of the two films featured above, I watched the Serge Gainsbourg film - "Serge Gainsbourg - A Heroic Life", Dir: Joann Sfar, 2010 in its' entirety a few days ago and am currently part way through "3 Days In Quiberon", Dir: Emily Atef, 2018, which looks at the last few days of the life of the Franco-German actress Romy Schneider.

What the two films have in common besides being biopics is that I'm not overly familiar with the subjects' work and I'm not a fan either way, though I knew of them and certainly where Romy Schneider is concerned, her films have been a bit of a discovery. Rather like Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Alain Delon, Anna Karina and others, she occupies a space within the image oriented social media spaces of Pinterest and Instagram, endlessly recycled and shared in posts as more and more archival images are unearthed by fans.

The recent news that actress Ana De Armas ("No Time To Die: and "Blade Runner 2049") is slated to play Marilyn Monroe in yet another biopic of the actress suggests that there is an endless fascination for someone who could claim the title of being "the" cultural icon of the 20th Century. I haven't investigated the number of films, mostly poor it has to be said, that attempt to present her life in a convincing way and where the actress' physical resemblance to Monroe succeeded in being a distraction for all the wrong reasons.

To be fair a number of more recent biopics have been quite successful and I have enjoyed watching them without the squirm factor that can follow either a poor resemblance or unconvincing performance that could, in the case of Marilyn Monroe, verge on being a parody, such as two films on Liberace and Judy Garland and where the physical resemblance could be overlooked because, in the case of Liberace, details of his rather mysterious life outside of his flamboyant stage persona were being revealed for the first time.

In the case of the two films featured above the most striking thing is the physical resemblance of the leads to the subjects, almost to the extent that it becomes a distraction as you question whether you are watching an actor playing a part or it is the actor in person playing themselves.

This is certainly true for "3 days in Quiberon" and some reviews don't help by suggesting that the plot, concerning Schneider's last press interview in a sanatorium in the French resort of Quiberon before she tragically ended her own life following the accidental death of her son, features an actual interview of the actress rather than the very convincing reconstruction that features in the film, aided by an uncanny performance by Marie Bäumer as Schneider and who bears a striking resemblance to her.

Where Serge Gainsbourg is concerned, he could hardly be described as being conventionally good-looking and his distinctive features would be difficult to match by an actor without some sort of help in the make-up department. However, Éric Elmosnino seems fated to play Gainsbourg due to his striking resemblance to the multifaceted artist, delivering a performance that goes beyond simply looking like him.

The two films couldn't be more different in terms of how they choose to depict the lives of these two icons. The Gainsbourg film charts his life from early youth to his later public persona as "Serge Gainsbarre" - a reinvention to address a decline in his popularity and after his separation from Jane Birkin and the subsequent alcoholism that ended his life. It features a number of whimsical sequences involving large puppets that lift it out of the usual format expected in biopics and that perform the role of digging a little deeper into his psychology.

The Romy Schneider film feels a lot more like a fly-on-the-wall documentary thanks in large part to Bäumer's performance, the shooting style and the use of monochrome photography, and the former so convincing as to make you doubt whether or not you are watching Schneider herself.

Perhaps, as the bar is set ever higher in the genre by successive films that address the faults of earlier efforts, either by uncovering actors who look very like the subjects being depicted or via some sort of digital augmentation combined with nuanced performances, biopics can only get better.

Ravi Swami, Nov 2021


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