Sunday, August 14, 2011
Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)
GAINSBOURG: A Heroic Life (2010).
Directed by Joann Sfar.
I admit to a small bias going into this film -- I like the music of Monsieur Gainsbourg and I'm a huge fan of artist-turned-filmmaker Joann Sfar. I did my best to put both of these predispositions away, but no doubt they color my opinion.
As one would expect from a film made by a first-time director best known for striking comic book storytelling, GAINSBOURG is carefully composed, lighted and photographed and has an emphasis on the visual. The first part of the film is set in World War II occupied Paris, where the child who will someday call himself Serge Gainsbourg is still just smart-alecky Lucien, who claims to hate playing piano when forced by his father to practice, but excels at it when it benefits him. Lucien's father is, himself, a professional pianist -- or at least makes his living playing in bars. The family is Jewish, and already feeling the pressure of an unwelcoming society that is about to turn toxic. Lucien, however, used this to his advantage, and takes pleasure in defying authority and charming adults in turns. That he has left school for the art academy at Montamorte allows Sfar to make grand use of his own art besides the surreal three-dimensional grotesqueries drummed up by Lucien's imagination. Sfar dwells on Lucien's obsession with the specter of his Jewishness as well as his obsession with his own physical inadequacy -- a girl tells him he's ugly in the first scene, and he carries it for the rest of the film. Even as a child, Lucien wears black, smokes constantly and treats women as objects of sex to idolize, obsess over and reject, which flows seamlessly into his adulthood and an endless stream of wives and lovers. Sfar haunts his subject with literal demons, forcing Lucian/Serge -- played by Eric Elmosnino with quiet nuance -- to interact with a literal manifestation of his id, a puppet dubbed La Gueule, performed by Doug Jones (HELLBOY). After his first success, Gainsbourg visits home and his father gives him faint praise for his career while encouraging him to indulge in infidelities. Instead of showing surprise that his strict father would be so bohemian, he takes it in stride, and also takes the advice. He makes a conscious decision to write songs loaded with double entendre, “poison apples” for corruption of youth, or possibly just to entertain his inflated, fragile ego. The later part of the film features fewer Sfar-isms (talking cats, puppets) as Serge and his ego become one -- punctuated by the arrival of Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta). From here on out, it's more specifically the Gainsbourg people either love or hate; a French stereotype of a weathered genius who spends more time seducing women half his age than he does writing songs for them to sing, though more than a few seem less wilting violets than venus flytraps. The heart of the storyline is his ill-fated romance with Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon, who committed suicide two months after the film's completion), which starts with him insulting her and passing out drunk in her lap and ends with her leaving him. There are tender moments -- he plays with her daughter from a previous marriage, she gives him a dog, all tainted by the irony of her having a hit with the love song he wrote for Bardot...
But the real story here is less of a biography than an homage to the life of an artist, whether a painter, a jazz musician or a songwriter of pop hits... or a cartoonist. And I suspect there is more than a little of Sfar's own biography mixed in. The closest thing I can compare it to is SEX DRUGS AND ROCK & ROLL, the Ian Dury bio-drama, which much like this one, works best the less you know about the subject.