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Canny docudrama with Uncanny reincarnation of Sartre by Denis Polaydes
"Sartre, l'Age des Passions", viewed at a CINEMA TOUT ECRANS, Geneva, 2006 Multi-media festival. To my mind the flagship film of the entire festival was a two-part TV docu-drama about French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and his life-long consort, Simone de Beauvoir, entitled "Sartre, L'Age des Passions", directed by senior Swiss helmer Claude Goretta (77). This was shot on Beta and the running times of the two segments are 87 and 80 minutes, respectively. While made for French TV it seems clear by the nature and scope of the work that Mr. Goretta has a more general audience in mind and he told me later that he is already thinking in terms of a transfer to film stock for eventual theatrical exploitation.
The film basically covers the period from 1958 the high point of Sartre's existentialist period, to the political rumblings of 1964 with the Algerian war in the background and events which would lead to the downfall of De Gaulle in 1968. During the nearly 3 hour saga we get a complete picture of Sartre the Philosopher, Sartre the writer, Sartre the politically-engaged anti-colonial media celebrity, and, last but not least Sartre the hideous skirt chaser! ~ It was no secret that he and his true love, Simon de Beauvoir, herself an internationally acclaimed writer (and a leading spokesman of the Women's movement with her widely translated best-seller "The Second Sex") had a so-called "open relationship", allowing for outside affairs without recrimination, and it was also no secret that the rather physically repulsive philosopher made maximum use of his fame and notoriety to get laid as often as possible.
In the sub-plot framing the political main theme one such fling Sartre enters into with a devoted female disciple causes the breakup of her relationship with her young beau, Frederic, who is also both a disciple of, and an assistant to, the celebrated philosopher. The role of Sartre is undertaken by French actor Denis Podalydes who turns in a characterization which is so accurate that it bears comparison with Philip Seymour Hoffman's far less convincing depiction of Truman Capote, which earned him a best actor Oscar earlier this year. Just shows that lots of really great work goes unnoticed by the Hollywood steamroller. Not only does Polaydes bear a strong physical resemblance to Sartre made uncannily so by the insertion of an ocular prosthesis to capture the bulging right eye which was the philosophers most striking visual trade-mark but he has also mastered every nuance of Sartre's characteristic vocal delivery. This I was assured of by several people who had seen documentary footage of Sartre over the years, or who remembered him personally from the telecasts of the time. General agreement reigns that this was, all-in-all, a letter perfect tour-de-force performance.
Those interested in Sartre's political and philosophical ideas will have plenty to chew on as long sequences are devoted to just this Sartre expounding at length on his views at press conferences and symposia, while fielding hard questions from highly involved listeners. And yet, this does not feel like an overly talky film, partly because Sartre was such a dynamic, charismatic individual, even when spouting abstruse philosophical views, but also because Podalydes has been so successful in capturing this dynamism with such precision on screen.
Anne Alvaro, an actress with a three decade career behind her, presents a magistral Simone de Beauvoir with great dignity and aloofness also a chillingly realistic portrayal. Though she doesn't have much to say she is a constant presence throughout, and her presence says it all -- every bit as imposing as the real Beauvoir must have been in real life and, of course, the ever-present head bands which were her own personal trademark. Simone and Sartre were perhaps the strangest, and at the same time, the most imposing intellectual couple of the twentieth century, and Claude Goretta's new look at their relationship is a towering achievement in the domain of docu-drama, which is to say, the reconstruction of reality with the devices of fiction.
I asked director Goretta (born, 1929) what it was that attracted him to this slightly abstruse subject especially considering that Sartre and Existentialism have now become, if not completely forgotten, not exactly the hot current issues they were some four decades ago. To this Goretta replied that although he is himself a product of those heady days of the Parisian fifties and sixties, he had himself kind of forgotten the impact and importance that Sartre once welded. And of Simone de Beauvoir as well in fact, the entire era. As he looked Back he found himself more and more involved and then felt that this was the right time to bring a new view of Sartre and his exciting times to the screen. (That the spirit of Sartre and Simone has not completely disappeared from the Left Bank scene in Paris, let it be noted that the square on Blvd. St. Germain des Près in front of the Café Deux Maggots, where the high profile couple used to hang out and hold court, has been renamed Place Jean-Paul Sartre")
I was personally hypnotized throughout and wonder whether a new generation is ready for this kind of intellectual-plus cinema. However, I have a feeling that if the publicity is properly handled Goretta's Sartre will speak to audiences even beyond the film's natural habitat of France and neighboring francophone countries. Incidentally, Sartre was an inveterate chain-smoker and the number of cigarettes Denis Podalydes consumes in this film has got to be a new world's record for ciggies consumed by one individual in a single film. Makes Bogie look like a piker Thank you for smoking indeed! -- and an absolute Must See for former Existentialists.
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