Despite a recent challenge to its supremacy by speculative reconstructions such as Frost/ Nixon or The Queen, the biopic is still one of cinema’s hardy perennials. In focusing on individual episodes, the newer form lacks the absurd sweep of the old-school biopic, where cheesy conventions pass through the cliché barrier and into the realm of pleasure. At the genre’s heart is an arrogant optimism that stems from its faith in the definitive. When a movie crams an entire life into a couple of hours, it can inspire in the viewer the amused pity usually reserved for families who pitch up at the check-in desk with lacrosse sticks and rubber rings bursting out of their corpulent luggage. You think they’re going to let you on the plane with all that?
Insightful biopics largely reject this catch-all approach. François Girard’s Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould sliced its subject’s life into non-chronological pieces arranged around a central abstinence (the film refrained from showing Gould playing the piano) while Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There broke apart the subject himself, Bob Dylan, by casting seven dramatically dissimilar actors in the lead role. (Haynes has a way with the unorthodox pop biopic: an earlier film, Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story, was populated entirely by Barbie dolls, who tend to work longer hours for less money.)
Another idea, inherited from Ken Russell’s 1970s work, is to be factually loose but tonally faithful, even allowing fantasy to predominate (as in Fur: an Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, or Kafka). Girard has insisted that it’s better “to be faithful to the spirit of your subject rather than to the facts”.
Cloclo does both. This film about the singer-songwriter and pop star Claude François – best known for writing “Comme d’habitude”, the musical template for “My Way” – is partly a standard rise-and-fall biopic (or, in this case, rise-and-die-abruptly). But there’s the feeling that the movie’s gaudy register is one François himself would have chosen in order to tell his own story.
If there is a sober way to portray an existence peppered with pool parties, flamboyant outfits and topless models on private yachts, the director, Florent-Emilio Siri, is in no hurry to find it. What he does, though, is keep his subject’s negative energy in mind even during the good times. The shot of a raging François playing the Conga drums until the skins are stained with blood exemplifies the film’s recipe of showbiz and masochism.
A biopic also contains an element of biopsy and Cloclo is no exception. The root of François’s unhappiness, as well as his success, is that Daddy didn’t love him. When the son first plays a vinyl copy of Frank Sinatra’s version of “My Way”, the walls of his home glide away to reveal his childhood garden and a vision of his late father smiling proudly at last. What could have been a hokey conceit is actually consistent with the performance sequences, where a pair of Congas, or the glamorous members of the dance troupe Les Clodettes, might pop into view at any moment. As with the script’s controlled release of information about François’s family life, which is entirely in keeping with the way he marshalled his own image, the film-makers have let him call some of the shots from beyond the grave.
Jérémie Renier, whose transformation into the eyebrow-plucking, foundation-caked pop icon gives him the unreal look of a sexy mannequin, plays François from his late teens onwards. The unwritten rule that we accept actors in biopics playing outside their own age is one with which Isn’t She Great, starring Bette Midler as the trash novelist Jacqueline Susann, had some cheeky fun: complaining loudly that she is 28 and her life is going nowhere, Midler (then 54) receives a withering “Yeah, right” from a passer-by.
Isn’t She Great was a biopic that knew it was a biopic but the aspirations of Cloclo lie in the more operatic mould of Goodfellas or Blow.
No one who sees the film will forget the unbroken shot that follows François out of his apartment, through the throng of adoring teenage girls, into his car, along the drive to work – during which his fans are running alongside the vehicle – and finally on to the pavement outside his office, where yet more admirers have congregated.
It’s a brilliantly conceived sequence in its invocation of the hyperbolic and the humdrum – François addresses casually these worshipful fans, like neighbours he has spotted in the post office, before driving to work a mere few hundred metres away. That this bathos extends to the film’s unhappy ending is something for which François himself can take the dubious credit.