The extreme highs and lows of French singer Claude Francois make for excellent musical-biopic fodder in “My Way,” from versatile Gallic helmer Florent Emilio-Siri (“Intimate Enemy,” “Hostage”). Though nearly 2 1/2 hours long, this ambitious work is structured like one of the hugely popular artist’s own songs — swiftly paced, and full of catchy hooks and heartbreaking moments. Local opening-week admissions totaled more than 1 million, and the pic has an outside chance of non-Francophone pickups, given the late crooner’s international renown as the original author of Frank Sinatra’s classic of the same name.
Though Francois (played by Jeremie Renier) was a key figure in the populist French equivalent of rock ‘n’ roll, who bedded almost as many willing women as he sold records (67 million and counting), his eventual downfall was brought on not by drugs or booze, but a faulty light he touched while standing in his bathtub. This rather domestic end seems almost appropriate, given that his demons were of a very personal nature and included jealousy, a craving for parental approval and an eternal quest to reinvent himself, as well as French music.
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Screenplay by Julien Rappeneau (“36 quai des Orfevres”) and the helmer at first appears to be an outline for a classical birth-to-death biopic. But what makes it play on the bigscreen is its constant juxtaposition of the professional and the private. What thus emerges, as the story jumps from Francois’ youth in 1940s Egypt — where his stern French father (Marc Barbe) worked — to his years as a struggling musician in Monte Carlo, and his fame and enormous fortune in 1960s Paris and beyond, is not a bullet-point-style overview of a famous person’s life, but rather a character-driven progression through some of the key events that informed and defined Francois’ personality.
Musical montage sequences thus advance the narrative and offer character insight. A performance of megahit “Comme d’habitude” is wedded onscreen to Francois’ stalker-like obsession with pretty blonde Isabelle (Ana Girardot), who would become the mother of his children; similarly, the first time he listens to the adaptation by Sinatra (Robert Knepper) of his song, now called “My Way,” transforms into a dream in which he imagines his late father’s reaction to this ultimate proof of his success. Setpieces are followed by scenes that suggest huge (but logical) ellipses, allowing Emilio-Siri to quickly move from such happy moments to new complications, keeping the pic’s rhythm uptempo throughout.
The recurring theme is family, as evidenced by the singer’s sometimes desperate attempts to please his kin, and his struggle to create and maintain a stable family of his own. Besides his difficult father, Francois also had a love-hate relationship with his fiery, gambling-addicted Italian mother (Monica Scattini), though his sister (Sabrina Seyvecou) was often supportive.
The pic’s first hour includes a look at Francois’ early marriage with a British showgirl (Maud Jurez) and an affair with up-and-coming thrush France Gall (Josephine Japy). In both cases, it is the protag’s borderline-obsessive jealousy of the girls’ success that undoes the relationship. With full-blown stardom come the always available fans and, finally, Isabelle, with whom Francois had two kids, one of whom was kept from the public eye for years. (Both sons are credited as associate producers, though the pic’s not exactly a hagiography.)
Cloclo, the singer’s nickname and the film’s original title, is embodied by Renier in an intensely physical and emotionally honest performance that allows for easy identification with the man behind the sequined suits and killer dance moves. Incidentally, the Dardennes regular (“La Promesse,” “L’enfant,” “Lorna’s Silence”) also bears a striking resemblance to Francois. The many actresses all offer strong support.
Crew consists of Emilio-Siri’s habitual collaborators, including ace d.p. Giovanni Fiore-Coltellacci, who occasionally lets things play out in beautiful long takes, and composer Alexandre Desplat, whose orchestral work reinforces the early going and adds poignancy to the film’s closing scenes.