- The Anxiety of Authenticity in Dahan's La Vie En Rose and Zeffirelli's Callas Forever
Two musical biographical pictures, Olivier Dahan's La Vie En Rose (2007) and Franco Zeffirelli's Callas Forever (2002) address in various ways the seemingly decisive, yet ever elusive, problem of authenticity. How should we define authenticity, and how can one account for the near hysteria surrounding the desire to achieve it, particularly in cinema?1 According to The Oxford English Dictionary, authenticity is a quality that is "in accordance with fact, . . . true in substance," as well as "original, first hand as opposed to copied."2 Emulating the platonic gesture that distinguishes between model and copy, authenticity presents itself as an "original," yet in doing so, paradoxically refers to a preexisting model, therefore already blurring the borders between the copy and the real thing. More interesting than trying to establish an ontological definition of authenticity is what the desire for authenticity, which implies a perceived lack thereof, betrays. In fact, the obsession with authenticity in cinema appears to be the symptom of a modern nostalgia for some paradise lost, the longing for a time when life was transparent and free of the modern apparatuses separating us from the world, turning "reality" not even into a theater stage, but into a movie theater, the most mediated, and therefore, artificial, of all representations. In the age of social mobility, globalization, and, most of all, the mechanical reproduction of the work of art, the search for authenticity seems to have become increasingly pressing, particularly as related to the art of illusion that is cinema. Mixing two hybrid and somewhat incompatible genres, the musical comedy and the melodramatic biopic, both films covered in this analysis wrestle with different kinds of authenticity [End Page 221] that constantly attempt to distance themselves from their supposed opposite, artificiality.
In relation to these two specific films, the issue of authenticity, or rather, the issue of authenticity being an issue, is explored on three different planes: narrative, genre, and medium. In each section, this essay will seek to explore why these films so desperately strive for authenticity, and how they go about convincing the audience they have achieved it. This essay begins by focusing on narrative authenticity, which helps the audience locate stable aesthetic and moral essences through romantic tropes and a melodramatic mode. This analysis then explores genre authenticity, investigating why it seems particularly important to these musical biopics to come off as authentic, and how they attempt to do so by (re)defining the categories of the musical comedy, the musical biopic and the biopic. If authenticity in a musical comedy is generally characterized by balance, with the integration of the music within the narrative and of the singer within the ensemble cast, then the imbalance of the musical biopic, with its emphasis on musical numbers and a single protagonist, implicitly disrupts the very category of generic authenticity. Furthermore, if authenticity in a biographical work seems to refer straight back to a historical truth, the biopic liberally mixes fiction and nonfiction, thereby crossing repeatedly over the boundaries between history and fantasy. Finally, this essay examines medium authenticity, i.e. the many ways in which the musical biopic anxiously hides its "inauthentic" alienated nature by trying to create the illusion of life through performance. Here, authenticity serves to deliver the (inevitably mediated) immediacy which nostalgic filmgoers crave.
Narrative Authenticity: The Biopic and Its Artist
While both La Vie En Rose and Callas Forever ostensibly fit within the biopic genre, they differ critically in their approach and style. La Vie En Rose tells the story of Edith Piaf (Marion Cotillard), France's most beloved popular singer from the thirties to the sixties; Callas Forever focuses on the life of Maria Callas (Fanny Ardant), the world's most renowned opera singer from the forties to the seventies. Despite relatively parallel plotlines, both films seem different in kind: La Vie En Rose can in fact easily be categorized as a biopic, retracing, more or less faithfully, the transformation of Edith Giovanna Gassion [End Page 222] into Edith Piaf through the heavy use of flashbacks. In contrast, Callas Forever begins in 1977, the...