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French Director Lisa Azuelos on the Contemporary Resonance of Her ‘Dalida’ Biopic

“Dalida,” the ambitious biopic depicting the rise and fall of famed Egyptian-born Italian-French singer Yolanda Cristina Gigliotti, ranks as one of 2017’s most anticipated films in France.

Co-produced, distributed and sold by Pathe, the film bowed in France today and is having its premiere at the opening night of UniFrance Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in Paris, which kicks off Jan. 12. Lisa Azuelos, best-known for helming hit coming-of-age dramedy “LOL,” wrote, director and produced (with Julien Madon) “Dalida,” a passion project which took five years to get made. Since unveiling the promoreel of the film in Cannes, Pathe has already pre-sold the film in Benelux, Bulgaria, Canada, Ex-Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy, Middle East, Morocco, Poland, Portugal, South Korea, Switzerland, Tunisia and Turkey. While promoting the film for the UniFrance Rendez-Vous, Azuelos discussed with Variety about the making of “Dalida,” its star, Sveva Alviti, and the movie’s contemporary resonance.

The biggest surprise of “Dalida” is Sveva Alviti, an Italian model-turned-thesp who delivers a breakthrough performance in the title role. How did you find her?

I said, ‘let’s do an international casting, even if the actress doesn’t speak a word of French.’ I searched for an actress in many countries, from Greece to Italy and eventually realized than it had to be an Italian actress to get the authentic accent of Dalida. When I came across Alviti, I stopped searching. I had found my Dalida. Sveva has an extremely touching gaze and the same beauty, the same mixture of strength and vulnerability that Dalida had.

I heard that she learned French for the part.

That’s true. She didn’t speak French at all when we cast her in late June. She worked tirelessly seven days a week until we started shooting the film in early February. I gave her a lot of freedom to feel the part and play it instinctively, and she delivered a mesmerizing performance.

You were probably approached by many prominent actresses for this part, why did you opt for an actress who isn’t well known?

Casting an unknown actress for the role of Dalida was the best decision because it allows the public to not project anything onto the character. When you have a famous actress playing a famous character most often it’s hard for audiences to forget about the actress and believe in the character she’s playing. It’s one of the pitfalls to avoid with biopics.

Why did you decide to start the film with Dalida’s first suicide attempt in 1967?

I wanted to tell all of her life but not in a linear way. To me, Dalida’s life is divided in two chapters. The first part, which ends in 1967 with her first suicide attempt, depicts her normal life, falling in love and forging a career. The suicide attempt marked a turning point and shaped Dalida’s identity during the second portion of her life. She spent it trying to find happiness again, and some appetite for life. But it’s very difficult to find happiness when you feel dead inside because you’re grieving someone you loved intensely.

How did you research for this film?

Half of it was classic journalistic work: I read a lot of interviews, biopgraphies and watched many documentaries and talked to Orlando (Dalida’s beloved brother and manager). The other half was written based on instincts and interpretations. I think I have a lot in common with Dalida so it felt very natural for me to write about her life, to put myself in her mind. I understand her need for spirituality and the struggle she endured, I know what it feels like when happiness slips away and doesn’t flow back. So this film is my interpretation of her life and psyche. But truth doesn’t exist anyway, there are only perspectives of the truth.

What’s striking in the film is the freedom which Dalida had in her love life even though she was a big star, therefore exposed to the public eye. She cheated on her first husband, she dated an 18 year-old man when she was in her 30’s, got an abortion, etc. Why do you think she was able to get away with so much and stay popular?

She had a brother (Orlando) who protected her and he was also her manager. It’s easy to see that many stars who enjoy a long and mostly scandal-free career are protected. For instance Celine Dion, who worked with her husband until he passed away. Then in the past there were duos like Michel Berger and France Gall. But still, Dalida was almost publicly repudiated when she cheated on her first husband. In the movie, you can hear a man who says: “When you cheat, you should be banned from singing,” and that’s something I heard in one archive footage.

Would you say the film has a feminist message, or rather do you see Dalida as an icon of feminism?

I’m just relating facts that are tainted with the spirit of feminism. I’m showing what it meant to be a liberated woman, like Dalida, like Brigitte Bardot, in the late 50’s, and the price of being such a woman. What’s somewhat alarming is that not that much has changed and we’re now in 2017. The rights to have an abortion, for instance, is being debated as we speak in some countries. Nothing should be taken for granted.

And yet, as liberated and independent as Dalida was, she aspired to marry and have children before getting a career. How do you explain this ambivalence?

This ambivalence is the core of her problem. Deep inside, Dalida was Yolanda, a woman who was raised in a strict catholic family and she knew how much happiness would children and motherhood bring into her life. And at the same time, on this outside, she was this fiercely independent woman, this powerhouse.

“Dalida” looks glossy but I hear the budget is actually reasonable. What artistique choices did you make to achieve this result?

We were all professionals working on this film. At every stage of the production we had to make drastic choices to depict four big historical periods. The movie’s budget would have been 30% higher three years ago, but times have changed and we must adapt. I decided to make an intimate portrait of Dalida and that didn’t call for extensive reconstitutions and too much exteriors. Anyway, we weren’t making a film about Edgar Hoover… The idea was to show Dalida like we had never seen her before, away from the spotlights, and the fact that we had to work with that budget helped us make the right decisions.

Do you think “Dalida” can interest people abroad, even those who are not so familiar with the singer?

Yes, Dalida’s life is fascinating whether or not we know who she was. She was an extremely modern woman and the film deals with universal, contemporary themes that touch women and men, like solitude, love, grief and the star system.

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