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Backstage (2006)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"If Miscasting A Film About Obsession Is A Crime, This Film Is Guilty!"
2 stars

One of the best movies I have ever seen is Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” his harrowing and darkly funny 1983 psycho-drama in which Jerry Lewis played a world-famous talk-show host who is kidnapped by obsessed fan Robert De Niro as part of an insane plot to win a slot on the show for his two-bit stand-up comedy act. Although there are plenty of reasons as to why this film works so well (and if you haven’t seen it yet, you are advised to stop reading this review right now–go ahead, I won’t mind–and watch it as soon as possible), its greatest asset is the performance by Jerry Lewis as the literal prisoner of fame. At the time of its release, most of the praise he received was derived from the fact that he was playing a straight dramatic role for the first time but there was more to it than just another case of a funny man going serious to show that he can do more than inspire giggles. What made the performance work was the way that he convinced viewers that he really was this incredibly famous celebrity undergoing the daily pressures of celebrity as a trade-off for his wealth, fame and power–when you saw him in those early scenes in which everyone he meets feels as if they know him intimately because of the connection he forged through the television cameras, you really felt that his character was a big star and this served to make the moments away from the spotlight, when he finally displays the frailties and vulnerabilities of the average person, even more memorable and affecting by comparison.

I was thinking about “The King of Comedy” a lot while watching the new French film “Backstage” and not just because it also deals with an oddball relationship between a famous performer wearying of the spotlight and a fan who seems to have nothing else of value in her life besides her obsessive devotion to her idol. No, I was thinking about “The King of Comedy” because as dead-on as Scorsese was in casting Jerry Lewis in the role of the celebrity, Emmanuelle Bercot is just the opposite in casting her film with a lead actress, Emmanuelle Seigner, who is never convincing for a second as either a world-famous star or as a real person. Actually, it goes beyond the bounds of mere miscasting–she is so unsuitable for the part that before the opening credits have finished running, the film is already essentially dead in the water because it is impossible to accept her as the character for even a second. On the bright side, the rest of the film isn’t that great either so it is less a case of a strong film undermined by atrocious casting as it is a weakly conceived drama with a central performance that serves as the final nail in the coffin.

Isild Le Besco stars as Lucie, a young woman with an all-consuming obsession with mega-famous Europop singer Lauren Waks (Emmanuelle Seigner). Lucie plasters the walls with her photos and listens to her music around the clock as an escape from her humdrum day-to-day life. And yet, when her idol literally appears on her doorstep–part of a weirdo televised surprise arranged by her mother–she freezes and locks herself away in her room. After getting over the shock, Lucie vows to reunite with her idol and runs away to Paris in order to look her up. Through circumstances too silly to recount here, Lucie not only finds Lauren but winds up being admitted into her inner circle to serve as a sort of gofer when tampons need to be purchased or old apartments need to be packed up. After spending time with Lauren, however, Lucie begins to realize that the focus of her obsession may well be as crazy as she is–at one point, she convinces Lauren to go skinny-dipping with her in a hotel pool and then nearly drowns her for laughs–and that much of this craziness, not to mention her inability to work, stems from her anguish over a recent breakup with the ever-brooding Daniel (Samuel Benchetrit). Realizing that something needs to be done, Lucie takes an extremely unorthodox method of taking a bullet for her idol in order to get Lauren back to normal (or what passes for it) and back to work.

On the surface, this doesn’t sound like an especially awful premise idea for a film–even with all the Europop on the soundtrack–but “Backstage” has two plausibility problems that effectively destroy whatever hopes this film might have had of succeeding. For starters, the whole notion of a world-famous pop star (one whom we are clearly meant to read as being the French equivalent of Madonna) and her entourage cheerfully taking an obviously disturbed young woman off the streets and into their midst is simply unbelievable–this might have worked in one of those 1950's teensploitation films but just doesn’t ring true in the post-Lennon era. However, even this premise is easier to swallow than the notion of Emmanuelle Seigner as a wildly charismatic pop idol who is adored and emulated by millions. Best known as the wife of Roman Polanski, for whom she appeared in “Frantic,” “Bitter Moon” and “The Ninth Gate,” Seigner has shown herself to be a quirky and reasonably alluring presence in some of her earlier films (especially in the bizarrely sadomasochistic “Bitter Moon”) but she is painfully unconvincing as Lauren. Any actor trying to portray a world-famous celebrity needs to create the kind of larger-than-life aura that suggests that they are indeed a star within the world of the film–all she suggests is your middle-aged aunt commandeering the karaoke machine after a few too many gin-and-tonics in order to do a medley of Blondie tunes (especially if your aunt happens to be Debbie Harry). And since we can’t buy Seigner as the object of Lucie’s objection, we can’t begin to buy Lucie’s obsession in the first place and the entire film winds up dead in the Perrier. (A much better choice for the role would be the great Emmanuelle Beart–she is one of the strongest actresses around, she has the kind of powerful charisma that the role requires and, as she showed in “8 Women,” she can even carry a tune.)

This is a bummer because “Backstage” does have a few notable elements scattered throughout the silliness. Isild Le Besco, perhaps best known to arthouse devotees in the States for her collaborations with director Benoit Jacquot, is an undeniably gifted actress (one who just happens to look like a sex bomb) and she is scarily convincing in the role of the obsessive Lucie before she becomes a pawn of an increasingly silly screenplay. And while most of the film demonstrate little knowledge or curiosity about the subjects of fame and obsession, director Emmanuelle Bercot does occasionally hit upon a strong idea every now and then–in one amusing bit, two characters who are both enamored of Lauren wind up having sex and as they twist away beneath the sheets, each one begins to imagine that it his her that they are making love to instead. It is a brief, brutal and funny bit that suggests the film that “Backstage” might have been in the right hands but it merely turns out to be a taste of things that never come.

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originally posted: 02/02/07 16:25:42
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Tribeca Film Festival For more in the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 San Francisco Film Festival For more in the 2006 San Francisco Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Seattle Film Festival For more in the 2006 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/22/06 Jay Lowrey A heavy film; well done but why would anyone be crazy about the singer? 4 stars
7/26/06 ahmet sakalli wonderful 5 stars
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  DVD: 03-Apr-2007



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