Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)
Serge Gainsbourg was a star of nationally monumental importance at home, for his song-writing, his love affairs, his provocations and his archetypically French fuck-you nonchalance. His musical influence reverberates world-wide, but he’s best-known as the unshaven, sex-obsessed, chain-smoking drunkard adored by the media and by hordes of new young fans in the last decade of his life (the 90s).
Joann Sfar’s new film, Gainsbourg (vie héroïque), stops just short of there. Indeed it stops just short of several things: if one happened not to know of the scandal of “Les sucettes” for example (innocent girl-child sings dirty-sounding lyrics), one would not realise the significance it had on Gainsbourg’s career and profile. Nor would you realize that he worked quite extensively in the cinema. The world of his popular career and the media, and his various national provocations, are largely elided until an isolated episode near the end; instead we more often see him hiding from press, or just outside of a film set, or on the end of a telephone to France Soir, dishing the scoop on his own coronary.
Sfar directs his first film, adapted from his own graphic novel, and proudly declares Gainsbourg his Master. This is mostly a loving portrait that aspires to some insight into the man’s psyche, but presented as a fairytale (“une conte de..”), with free interpretations in the “spirit of Gainsbourg” applied by Sfar to certain personal events. Narrative shape, change and personal growth are notorious biopic hazards, but their looseness here leaves Gainsbourg trotting through incidents as though more concerned with covering the ground between wartime childhood and the early eighties, than developing anything at all really. Beyond an invented auta-da-fé, when he threw up painting for music, change is provided mostly by the succession of women: Bardot inspires a fevered night of famous song-writing, and it is implied that Jane Birkin is turning him from his true self and into a drunkard. But the narrative jumps abruptly through time and space and frequently skimps distractingly on details (what the hell is he doing in Dali’s bedroom? Where the hell did that blonde wife come from?) and the inner Gainsbourg remains at arm’s length.
This despite the fact that Gainsbourg is followed around by a tall, stick-thin version of himself: his (ugly) mug, with enormous ears, nose and fingers. It’s the defiant figure he conjured in his constant childhood sketchbook, who basically represents all Gainsbourg became, as a public figure at least, in the last decade of his life. The transition is muted in the film: it was a conscious decision to adopt the dirty old man “Gainsbarre” persona, and here we see him momentarily endowed with the cranial appendages in a barber’s mirror, embracing his own grotesquery. Apparently Sfar wanted to keep these on for the final scene, but was dissuaded by producers; a pity, since it would have provided a far more piquant ending, in the ad-pretty sunset, on a wordless drive with his daughter in a gleaming chauffeur-driven Rolls.
This id-incarnate Gainsbourg – “Flipus” – is an occasionally charming addition, a mischievous imp on the shoulder, but veers too close to Jar Jar Binks territory. Far more successful is the giant head that leaps from a Beware of the Jews poster to follow the child Gainsbourg around, as the first incarnation of his self-doubt (he was then Lucien Ginsberg, a poor White Russian Jew in occupied Paris). The opening section of the film is in many ways the more interesting, before well-known events hi-jack the course of action. The child actor, Kacey Mottet Klein, is a superbly self-possessed little tyke, and dealing with his Jewishness involves bribing his way with cigarettes into getting the first yellow star being handed out.
The child’s attitude is curious, but his ethnic guilt/confusion is transferred with no further ado to the external entity, and then merged with simple non-ethnic concerns over self-image (he is told he is ugly in the first five seconds of the film). In the form of Flipus, these hang over him for the rest of his life, but on the evidence onscreen, in his imagination only. People will be mad at him for being drunk, or for rewriting "La Marseillaise", but not for being Jewish or ugly. After a glorious knees-up as a young man with a group of eastern European refugee children, his adult attitude towards the issues must simply be inferred: the appearance of Cabbage-Head Man in the 70s merely reiterates half the point.
The big question with Gainsbourg is how did this ugly toad get so many beautiful women? That’s hardly explored either, but Sfar is blessed with a perfect lead in Eric Elmosnino. Not only does he have those features – the weird nose, the fat lower lip, the grizzled jowl – but his quick, sly glance and most importantly the insouciant attitude, really do bring Gainsbourg and his effortless charisma to life. This is where the film’s main pleasures lie, and around the central performance the cast are terrific.
The late Lucy Gordon captures that weird Jane Birkin combination of self-possession and awkwardness to a tee; Sara Forestier does a hilarious dance as France Gall; Anna Mouglalis doesn’t quite have Juliette Greco’s otherworldly sexiness, but still smolders to good effect; and if Laetitia Casta can’t pull off Brigitte Bardot (who one earth could?) she does at least get a killer entrance and a very sexy dance with a sheet, to the kapow-whizz of “Comic Strip”.
Sfar’s intent to make a poetic tribute to his idol is entirely realised. It’s delightful in places, from the charming animated credits to Greco’s talking cat-valet, and for the Gainsbourgophile there’s lots of detail to be enjoyed. The established facts of his life are horned in or awkwardly omitted, but the various milieu are finely evoked – the jazz years are particularly whiskey-sodden and smoke-filled – and Olivier Daviaud’s arrangements and interpretations of the original songs are spot-on. The film does not allow its central character to emerge totally from his public image, nor does it grapple with the less pleasant facets of that image, but Elmosinino’s performance gives us a real sense of how captivating that image was.
d/sc Joann Sfar p Marc Du Pontavice, Didier Lupfer ph Guillaume Schiffman ed Maryline Monthieux pd Christian Marti m Olivier Daviaud cast Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Doug Jones, Anna Mouglalis, Kacey Mottet Klein, Sara Forestier, Mylène Jampanoï, Claude Chabrol
(2010, Fr, 130m)