Wed 19 Jun 2013
If this story happened in the USA it would have been labelled as the American Dream story. An Italian immigrant comes to the new country with his three kids. A few years later he receives citizenship. The younger of the children dreams to become a movie star. He starts to sing in clubs, enjoys some success, tries doing movies, it’s a failure, does more music for another two decades, then returns to the big screens. He becomes one of the most successful singers AND actors of his generation, a symbol of the new country. He is even considered to have good chances to be elected president. A success story. It’s just that it did not happen in the USA but in France. A French Dream and Success Story. The name is Ivo Levi, better known as Yves Montand. My cousin who knows it all or almost says that the name was given to kid Ivo by his friends in Marseille who were laughing at his mother shouting to him ‘Ivo, monta!’ when he was too late getting back home.
Patrick Rotman‘s TV documentary brings to screen the biography of Yves Montand. It may look like an easy task, as Montand was filmed copiously on stage, on screen, in his private and public life, so there was plenty of material to chose from. It is also a challenge for the documentary director as he has to filter the material, assemble it and give it a chance to become a portrait and a story. The story of the life of a big artist, but one that demands respect without becoming adulatory, one that presents the disputable aspects of the biography (and there have been a few of these as well) without falling into cheap sensationalist. One that leaves us with the complete story and portrait of the man and of the artist. While choosing a conservative chronological way of describing the biography and the work of Montand, Rotman in my opinion succeeded, he stood well by the challenge. His portrait of Montand is interesting, the story is well told, no (important) skeletons stay in the closet (maybe with the exception of the old age parenting dispute), and the film is interesting to watch and listen to. To his credit most of the songs figuring in the film are not yet on youTube so there is one more reason for the fans of Montand’s music to look for this film and see it in cinemas (if possible) or on the net (if available).
The almost two hours of projection allow the time to develop the story of the rags-to-Olympia career of the singer which passes through the encounter with Edith Piaf, of the love story of almost a life with Simone Signoret, of the crisis of their relationship when Marylin Monroe interfered. Most interesting however were for me the episodes related to the political engagement of Montand. The singer and the actor was what the Communists call ‘a road companion’ or even a little more than that, playing into the hands of the Communists and the Soviets until and including the year 1956, when he went to a triumphal tour in Moscow, Leningrad and other East Block cities right after the Soviet bloody crushing of the Hungarian anti-communist revolution. His direct contact with the realities beyond the Iron Curtain were however also a trigger to his awaking, He not only realized the lies of the Soviet system, but also departed from the tradition of his family (his father had become a Communist in opposition of Mussolini in his native Italy, his brother was a Communist and a syndicalist leader). Starting with 1968, the year of the Soviet invasion in Czechoslovakia Yves Montand became an active fighter for human rights against all totalitarian systems, left or right. He opposed dictatorship in Greece, Argentine and Chile, but also the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and he supported the movements for democracy in Poland and Czechoslovakia which eventually led to the fall of the Wall in Berlin and of the Iron Curtain in Europe. In the 80s he sang in Israel in support of the fight to allow free immigration of Jews from the Soviet Union.
The best parts in the film are however the musical ones, with a lot of original and well documented clips from the early periods of Montand’s career, including the concerts on Broadway in 1960 which fulfilled his dream (and possibly the dream of his parents) to reach the shores of America and be successful there. The film career of Montand seems a little bit neglected relative to the musical one, Montand was a huge actor, but we are shown too few and told only scarce things about his film career. The magic of stage seems to have conquered director Rotman, and he succeeds to pass it to the viewers, at the expense of other dimensions of the personality of the artist. Yet there is much in this film that is worth seeing and much to learn and love about the personality of Montand. If you are not already in love with him you have good chances to fall under the spell of Ivo Livi dit Yves Montand after having seen this film.