film review: dalida

Iolanda Cristina Gigliotti, known professionally as Dalida, enjoyed international fame as a singer and actress before her suicide in 1986. The latest biopic from writer-director Lisa Azuelos follows the dovetailing stories of Dalida’s professional success and personal tragedy, by way of a rather convoluted structure. We are first introduced to Dalida (Sveva Alviti) checking in to a Parisian hotel for a suicide attempt. She fails, and during her recovery her childhood and early career are told in flashback to the physician treating her. Ex-husband Lucien Morisse (Jean-Paul Rouve) relates his discovery of Dalida at a singing competition. Their affair caused Lucien to abandon his previous wife, yet by the time of their marriage Dalida had become disillusioned with the relationship, upset over her fiancé’s prioritization of her career over children and a family. Her brother Orlando (Riccardo Scamarcio) reveals details about their youth in Egypt. Dalida thought herself ugly because of the glasses she wore and the teasing they garnered from her schoolmates. She also suffered an early trauma when their violinist father was arrested and detained during World War II.

A former lover, Jean Sobieski (Niels Schneider) brings both the audience and the doctor up to present day. His affair with Dalida began shortly after her marriage, then quickly fell apart when she moved on to budding singer Luigi Tenco (Alessandro Borghi). Tenco had recently committed suicide after a poor reception at a competition, and it is this loss that the men believe has brought on Dalida’s current depression. Following this revelation Dalida churns forward linearly, although it does not entirely abandon flashbacks. Starting in media res hampers the entire film, though. For a project with women in the roles of lead actress, as well as writer/director/producer, it’s disappointing that for the first hour Dalida is unconscious, her life story related instead by the men who have observed it.

Recovering from her attempted suicide, Dalida enjoys a rejuvenation of her career with Orlando as her new manager. Her hunger for romantic and domestic satisfaction, however, still figures prominently. An affair with a university student leads to pregnancy and a secret abortion with, she later learns, renders her sterile. A relationship with socialite Richard Chanfray (Nicolas Duvauchelle) has a promising start, but turns tumultuous and abusive over time. There are additional suicides and eating disorders, an almost surreal level of melodrama that presages the singer’s tragic end.

Sveva Alviti as the singer Dalida

Sveva Alviti bears an uncanny resemblance to her subject and brings a carefully controlled melancholy to her portrayal. It’s a warm and nuanced performance, held back by some questionable choices in the script (the male-driven first half, along with a mirror-Dalida who voices the singer’s silent thoughts out loud only once and is never seen again). Alviti does not appear to do any of her own singing: the soundtrack credits Dalida’s recordings, and in some instances the lip syncing is quite apparent. Rouve’s ex-husband adds a touch of smarm at the start, while Scamarcio toes the line between selfless brother and self-interested talent manager.

Dalida is sumptuously shot by cinematographer Antoine Sanier, who captures all the luxurious, colorful details of a celebrity’s life from the 1950’s through the 1980’s. Azuelos’ writing and direction are both uneven, their periods of strength undermined by ineffective choices early on. Strong performances from Alviti and her co-stars go a long way towards buoying an inconsistent script, yet by the film’s end Dalida still feels just slightly out of reach, a diva sequestered behind the stage lights while we can only sit and watch in the front row.


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