The difficulty of creating any biopic is in finding a thematic throughline to the life it depicts. In many ways, fictionalizing the lives of real people is infinitely more difficult than creating characters from whole cloth, as there is a duty to remain faithful to events as they happened while simultaneously crafting an engaging and coherent story that may last years or decades, but the messiness of a human life rarely, if ever, cleanly fits into the three act structure of a conventional narrative, nor is a person so easily reduced to a handful of observations about their character. Dalida is yet another failed attempt to boil down a person to a singular point of interest, not only because that point of interest doesn’t actually tell us much of anything about her, but because it also reduces the life of a woman in shamefully predictable ways.
If you’re unfamiliar with who Dalida is, you’re probably (1) not French or Italian, and (2) below the age of fifty, so don’t worry if the name doesn’t ring a bell. Dalida, born Iolanda Gigliotti in Egypt (and played here by Sveva Alviti), was a pop idol who found her claim to fame from the late fifties to the eighties, though the film implies that the height of her career was during the sixties and seventies. During her time in the spotlight she knew many men and loved them all, only to have each of them exit her life through tragic, sometimes fatal, means.
This is an interesting bit of trivia about Dalida’s perpetually woeful love life, but as portrayed by the film it is virtually the only aspect of her life that bears any significance. Rather than be treated to a glimpse of Dalida’s rise to fame through her eyes, instead we spend the majority of the film watching Dalida fall in love, encounter romantic strife, reach a tragic conclusion to that relationship, and then start anew with a new flame. Meanwhile, we get very little of Dalida’s thoughts and emotions even as they relate to these events, as she’s perpetually stuck vacillating between being lovestruck and grieving with barely any room for other emotions. It’s a portrait of a woman that is entirely dependent on the men in her life, offering her little to no agency even as she makes artistic accomplishments that only serve as montage music for the repetitively predictable rise and fall of her emotional state.
Even if Dalida weren’t offering a most reductive and pedestrian portrayal, the basic construction of the tale it tells is woefully undercooked. It opens on a suicide attempt by Dalida in 1967 that presumably functions as a framing device as her doctor interviews family and friends about her depression. However, the narrative makes massive non-chronological jumps in time that serve no thematic purpose beyond opening with the most salacious bit of intrigue. Then, when the story catches up with the time of the framing device around the midpoint and the film realizes there’s yet more story to tell, the framing device is unceremoniously dropped so that the story may continue unhindered by the self-imposed restrictions it had adopted.
One has to wonder who Dalida is even for, as it seems wholly disinterested in exploring Dalida as a character or celebrating her legacy as a musician. As far as writer-director Lisa Azuelos’s film is concerned, Dalida was a serial monogamist who perpetually had her relationships end badly and felt betrayed by a life that didn’t allow her to have children. These may well have been aspects of Dalida’s life, but to hold them up as the most important aspects is dismissive of her individuality and autonomy, both as an artist and as a woman.