The 24-year-old French actress Isild Le Besco has one of the most exotic faces in movies. With long, pale eyes supported by high cheekbones, and a fleshy, down-turned mouth brooding over a gently receding chin, she might have modeled for the stone carvers of a lost Mesoamerican civilization. (Her background is a mix of Breton, Vietnamese, and Berber.)
Le Besco’s natural look is a mask of stoical misery, and she’s made a career portraying sullen teenagers, mostly for veteran gamine-connoisseur Benoît Jacquot. But angst-ridden adolescence won’t be her signature role much longer, and she kisses it off to splendid effect in Emmanuelle Bercot’s Backstage. Le Besco also appeared in Bercot’s featurette La Puce, the tale of a young girl’s first sexual experience; here she undergoes another sort of initiation.
An enjoyably overwrought meditation on the consequences of celebrity and the vicissitudes of fandom, Backstage stars Le Besco as the schoolgirl acolyte of Emmanuelle Seigner’s pop diva, a singer-songwriter and high priestess of cheese. Their meeting is suitably world-historical. In an ill-conceived public relations pseudo-event, Seigner pays a surprise visit, or rather a holy visitation, to Le Besco’s humble suburban home—the star saunters in through the backyard singing her latest chanson to her stricken devotee.
It’s a wonderfully choreographed sequence, parodying music video pyrotechnics while supplying the movie with an MTV-friendly excerpt that allows worshipped and worshipper to come face-to-face. The camera crew dances around them, with Le Besco’s idiotic mother fervently lip-synching in the background. The tearful girl hugs her idol (a bit too long and hard for everyone’s taste) before dashing devastated for the safety of her bedroom, which—replete with life-sized posters—doubles as a Seigner shrine.
Everything that follows is a reaction to the initial spectacle of a dream come true. The sleep of flacks creates monsters: Le Besco makes a pilgrimage to Paris and—thanks in part to a spontaneous nosebleed at a strategic moment—manages to cross the border between heaven and earth and insinuate herself into Seigner’s entourage. Thereafter, Backstage develops into an appropriately mood-swinging two-hander, with each of the principals more than a little scary. Seigner, who does her own singing, gives an excellent performance as the mercurial diva—projecting a naturalistic combination of goddessy self-absorption and spontaneous, distracted bewilderment. “They keep hassling me—I don’t know what they want,” she complains to Le Besco of her other fans.
Publicity for Backstage compares it to All About Eve, but Le Besco’s character wants something far crazier and more primal than to assume the star’s career or have her clothes or her cute boyfriend or even her identity (as Rupert Pupkin lusted after Jerry Langford’s in The King of Comedy). Those are rational, if not exactly heartwarming, ambitions. Le Besco may steal from Seigner but she doesn’t maneuver to supplant her; she has no plan, she’s gripped by a mania. Her desire is closer to founding a new religion. She’s possessed—and Backstage is less case history than myth.
The most down-to-earth character is Seigner’s long-suffering bodyguard (Jean-Paul Walle Wa Wana). That he’s played by an actual bodyguard elevates him to the slopes of Olympus as well—he’s the personification of the reality principle.