01 March 2010

Sfar’s ‘Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)’

Double-take: Elmosnino at work

Singer–songwriter Serge Gainsbourg (1928–91) remains one of the most sacrés of all the monstres in French culture. When a new film based on his life story was announced, I naturally presumed that it was meant primarily to capitalize on the success of the recent biopic of Edith Piaf, La Môme (known in the U.S. as La Vie en Rose) — to say nothing of American hits such as Ray and Walk the Line. Artistically, each of these films has wrestled with cliché, not always winning, and Gainsbourg’s hard-lived life promised many of the same elements. I feared the worst.

What I hadn’t counted on was the participation of Joann Sfar, a comic-book author–illustrator. Directing for the first time, he brings to Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) an imaginative sensibility unlike any that I’ve seen in any movie about an artist, with the possible exception of Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann. Sfar adapted the screenplay from his own graphic novel,* and while he respects the outlines of biography, he liberates a fantasy, too.

Moi non plus: Lucy Gordon, Eric Elmosnino, and friend.
(On the other side of the desk, the great director Claude Chabrol is having a helluva good time playing a record producer.)

It’s hard to live in France without at least a little awareness of Gainsbourg’s life and music. Born Lucien Ginsburg, he wrote cynical, deliberately provocative songs that, years later, haven’t lost their power to shock. Perhaps the most famous of these is the duet “Je t’aime, moi non plus” (I love you, me neither), a sexual congress in which the woman sings sweetly of love while apparently experiencing several orgasms; her partner is indifferent at best. Gainsbourg recorded this one a couple of times, with two different real-life lovers: Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin.

Musically, he delighted in playing with different styles. Several songs are based on melodies from Classical composers; others play with French music-hall conventions, others twit rock and disco, and his notorious “Reggae Marseillaise” nearly got him killed. He led a very public private life, carrying on affairs with women who were famous or beautiful or both, while embodying a Romantic persona: hard-drinking, rebellious, poetic, self-destructive.

Sfar on the set

That persona is, let’s face it, an enormous cliché, but in making his movie, Sfar eschews all the others of this genre: the clumsy introduction of famous friends and lovers, the ponderous exposition of background, the thudding scenes in which we’re meant to believe that artistic inspiration takes place in a flash and great songs are written easily, the clear-cut rise-and-fall trajectory, the newspaper headline or radio broadcast that announces the Big Historical Event. On the contrary, Sfar doesn’t underline, telegraph, or hammer anything at all.

And so, when Brigitte Bardot makes her entrance, it’s about as theatrical as one can get onscreen: striding in slow-motion down a long hallway, with a dog that looks much like her. The Parisian audience laughed, because they’re sufficiently familiar with Bardot to recognize the actress playing her, and surely they expected Bardot to turn up at some point in any movie about Gainsbourg. Yet never does anybody onscreen say, “Oh, look, it’s Brigitte Bardot,” or “Serge, I want you to meet Brigitte Bardot.” Indeed, nobody says her name at all until several minutes have passed and her scenes are nearly over.

Casta as B.B., with Elmosnino

The many such instances in which Sfar resists the facile are commendable, but that’s only part of his achievement. Consider the sequence when, after a drunken night in Montmartre, Gainsbourg goes home with his mentor, Boris Vian (played by Philippe Katerine). “The Frères Jacques are staying at my place,” Vian says casually.

Cut to Vian’s apartment, and voilà, the Frères Jacques, in full costume, are curled up like Disney elves in any available nook — in a bookcase, over the fireplace — and snoring away. The next morning, they make breakfast, still in costume, singing and sometimes speaking in harmony, and turning the meal into one of their comedy routines.

What’s for breakfast?
Le Quatuor as Les Frères Jacques, with Elmosnino

The catch here is that, if you don’t know who Boris Vian and the Frères Jacques were, Sfar doesn’t offer much help. For that reason, I’m a bit doubtful about the overseas potential of Gainsbourg.

The real-life Gainsbourg was trained as an artist and wanted to pursue a career as a painter. Sfar himself provides the artwork here, and his pictorial sense informs the composition of images. The ordering of scenes and many of the fantastical elements reflect Sfar’s work in graphic fiction, particularly the Petit Vampire series of comic books for children, about the friendship between an orphaned Jewish boy and a family of monsters, and their adventures.

Michel, Fantomate the flying dog, and Petit Vampire

There is something decidedly vampiric about the single most distinctive (and arguably most effective) element of Gainsbourg. “Every poet has a double,” we’re told early in the film, and the young Lucien Ginsburg finds his during the Occupation, shortly after obtaining his yellow Star of David.**

At first, the double is a roly-poly playmate, albeit a monster, his appearance based on an image from an anti-Semitic poster Lucien has seen. As Lucien grows older and becomes Serge, the double becomes a lean, diabolical creature (beautifully mimed by Doug Jones, who was the Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth), with a puppet head, glowing eyes, and a nose and ears even more exaggerated than Gainsbourg’s own.

Gueule d’atmosphère: Jones

Also called La Gueule,*** the double pops up constantly in order to urge Gainsbourg to do what is best for his music — though that’s seldom good for his character. It’s he who spurs Gainsbourg to abandon first his painting, then his children; to sell his songs to Juliette Gréco by seducing her; to betray the trust of naïve France Gall; and so on. He’s like all the Hoffmann villains in one body.

The movie has so much going on that it doesn’t need to fracture the timeline, as Olivier Dahan did in La Môme. Vie héroïque plays out chronologically — and more quickly than La Môme, despite the fact that Gainsbourg lived longer than Piaf did. To maintain this swift pacing, Sfar weighs songs and scenes judiciously. Two early marriages are pretty much glossed over, for example, and I was left unsure how many children Gainsbourg had, yet I didn’t feel I was missing much. (Except possibly some clichés about the tortured private lives of great artists.)

Mouglalis as Gréco, with Elmosnino

Some of the celebrity lookalikes in Gainsbourg are uncanny, not least because they’re played by celebrities: Yolande Moreau (as Fréhel), Anna Mouglalis (as Gréco), and Sara Forestier (as Gall) register strongly, and in a cameo, Sfar himself is spot-on as Georges Brassens. The supermodel Laetitia Casta is taller and leaner than Bardot, and (in previous movies) not much of an actress, yet she’s a revelation here: she locates the real woman behind the sex kitten, and in a dance sequence perfectly mimics Bardot’s trademark physicality.

Young Lucy Gordon, another stunningly beautiful fashion model, delivers a sly, sensitive portrayal of Birkin — no mean feat, since the real Birkin is still around for comparison, constantly on French movie and TV screens. Gordon more than measures up to the reality and to the dramatic requirements of the film, and her performances in Gainsbourg and in Les Poupées russes make one regret all the more that she committed suicide shortly after filming ended, just before her 19th birthday.

Gordon as Birkin

A few lesser-known actors turn in outstanding performances, too. Young Kacey Mottet Klein, as Lucien, is a precocious bundle of audacity, chainsmoking, trying to pick up women, and sassing Vichy bureaucrats. As his father, a frustrated pianist, Razvan Vasilescu warms gradually from stern taskmaster to proud papa, especially excited to meet Bardot. (In some scenes, Vasilescu looks uncannily like Stanley Tucci in Julie and Julia.)

Playing an artist’s model, Ophélia Kolb embodies the promise of pleasure; she plays a similar character, an earthy tavern wench, in L’autre Dumas. I like her work, but I hope she gets to do something different in her next picture.

Gordon and Elmosnino

Eric Elmosnino plays the grownup Gainsbourg, and the physical resemblance between actor and subject is so pronounced that the poor fellow must have trouble finding other work. Yet that resemblance means that he can’t rely on makeup, as Marion Cotillard did for so much of La Môme, and left to his own artistry, he’s superb. Even in the latter portion of the movie, when Gainsbourg is never sober, Elmosnino finds subtle gradations of drunkenness — and also of feeling. And his interaction with the double helps us sympathize with a hero whose actions are not always admirable. As Elmosnino/Gainsbourg’s eyes widen with timidity and doubt, or narrow with resistance to amoral designs, so do ours.

Indeed, I’m not ultimately persuaded that Gainsbourg’s was a heroic life. But I am persuaded that Sfar believes it, and that may be what counts most. His film, unlike most other musical biopics, is a personal vision; certainly I’ll be a long time forgetting this remarkable portrait, a tribute from one artist to another.

*NOTE: Sfar’s graphic novel on Gainsbourg is the size of a family Bible, with gorgeous color illustrations, an even more fantastical narrative, and a prohibitive price tag. I’ve admired it in the bookstore, much the way I admire a painting in a museum.

**Gainsbourg called the Jewish patch “a sheriff’s badge,” and wrote a song about it. “I was born under a lucky star,” he said, “a yellow one.”

***“Gueule” is a slang word for “face,” equivalent to the English “mug.”

1 comment:

William V. Madison said...

In reading up on the film, I find that Jane Birkin doesn’t want to see it: she’s uncomfortable with the idea of seeing other people portray real people she knew. She asked that Sfar change the title to “Gainsbourg, a Fairy Tale,” and though he declined, that’s not a bad way for the rest of us to look at the movie.

I also learn that Sfar originally wanted the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, the daughter of Serge and Jane Birkin, to play her father, and for a while she considered doing so. Now that would have been an interesting picture!

Charlotte took part in Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, a highly artistic (and idiosyncratic) portrait of Bob Dylan, in which Cate Blanchett was one of the actors who portrayed Dylan. (Best of the lot, in fact.) So there was precedent for Sfar’s casting idea. And yet, by withdrawing from Sfar’s project, Charlotte actually helped to make it a little more original.