“Poor Dalida!” sighs every glossy frame of Lisa Azuelos’ handsomely mounted but gooey, Lifetime-style biopic of the famous French-Egyptian singing star: “Poor, poor Dalida!” In her montage-heavy, surface-level skitter across a tear-streaked life of meteoric professional success and devastating personal setback, French director Azuelos (“LOL”) leaves no life-story cliche behind. Dalida, born Yolanda Cristina Gigliotti in Cairo, reigned over the European charts for 30 years, reinventing herself from smoky chanteuse to disco diva, and her original recordings, used unsparingly throughout the film, stand as testament to her gift for communicating passion, sadness and sentiment through song. But she was also hounded by personal demons and beset by tragedy: Her ex-husband and two of her lovers committed suicide before Dalida herself took her own life in May 1987 at the age of 54. And it is her torture, not her talent, that is the inevitable focus of the melodramatic “Dalida,” giving the film its lurid, lachrymose sheen.
Told non-chronologically so as to bookend the film with tragedy, “Dalida” begins with the beautiful singer, played by Italian model and uncanny lookalike Sveva Alviti, already at the height of her fame. It is 1967, and her lover, singer Luigi Tenco (Alessandro Borghi) has recently shot himself, leaving a note inculpating an “ignorant public.” Having given her brother/business partner Bruno (Ricardo Scamarcio), aka Orlando, the slip at Orly Airport, Dalida makes her way back to the Paris hotel where she spent nights curled in Luigi’s arms discussing Heidegger (“Life is not the being-toward-death,” she insists, but “the being-toward-love”) and attempts suicide for the first time. Hustled away to a sanitorium, the film then moves into flashback mode as the institution’s head shrink interviews successive friends and relatives about Dalida’s life to this point.
Her ex-husband Lucien (Jean-Paul Rouve) recalls discovering her at a talent show at the behest of French music magnate Eddie Barclay (Vincent Perez), and thanks to the miracle of montage, it takes just a couple of minutes to see her go from nervy ingenue to France’s most popular singing star, while Lucien gazes at her, dazzled. Eventually, as we understand from a rather literal shot of him putting on his hat and picking up a suitcase while his frumpily distraught wife looks on, he ends his marriage to be with her.
Dalida wants to be “ordinary,” to get married to Lucien, cook him dinners and have a baby. But Lucien regards her career as their child and leaves it late to propose. Dalida accepts, but, as the reflections in her three-paneled dresser mirror tell us, she no longer really loves him. Finding someone to really love is the storied quest that Azuelos’ film tracks lasciviously as Dalida pings from one doomed affair to the next. And she can really pick ’em: As well as the temperamental Tenco, there’s the handsome painter she meets at a party who turns out to be the son of the King of Poland; the impoverished philosophy student whom she buys off following an unplanned pregnancy and an abortion that leaves her infertile; and the “celebrity alchemist” who claims to be 17,000 years old and whom Dalida has to bail out of jail when he shoots her maid’s boyfriend.
As so often in biopics of famous, complex women, Dalida’s life is thus reduced to a parade of romantic intrigues and solipsistic heartbreak, with very little sense emerging of the real woman who lived it all, and less still of the talent that made her music and performances so meaningful to millions. The thinness of the characterization is not helped by the inexperienced Alviti’s rather stiff performance, complete with some not wholly convincing miming of the songs — though her resemblance to Dalida is striking, as is that of many of the players to their real-life counterparts. It points to a preoccupation with surface detail that also provides “Dalida” with its most impressive aspects: Emmanuelle Youchnovski’s covetable costumes and Emile Ghigo’s production design are strong, especially as captured by cinematographer Antoine Sanier’s sleek, rich shotmaking. And her heavily sampled songbook of French-language covers, torch songs and dizzy disco hits at least ensures the soundtrack album will be a fine primer.
In large part, however, the film falls squarely into every snare of the schmaltzy biopic category, exploiting the salacious details of her drama-laden life for maximum manufactured sentiment but yielding little psychological insight, and glossing over her sometimes contradictory behavior with a wistful sigh and a thousand-yard stare. Poor Dalida, indeed. She deserves better than “Dalida.”