Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life **
Directed by: Joann Sfar.
Written by: Joann Sfar based on his graphic novel.
Starring: Eric Elmosnino (Serge Gainsbourg), Lucy Gordon (Jane Birkin), Laetitia Casta (Brigitte Bardot), Doug Jones (La Gueule), Anna Mouglalis (Juliette Gréco), Mylène Jampanoï (Bambou), Sara Forestier (France Gall), Kacey Mottet Klein (Lucien Ginsburg), Razvan Vasilescu (Joseph Ginsburg), Dinara Drukarova (Olga Ginsburg).
Serge Gainsbourg was a huge French star in the 1960s, and remained a popular fixture in French culture until he died in 1991. This biopic on his life is eccentric, strange, not altogether successful and way overlong. It was written and directed Joann Sfar, who adapted his own graphic novel for the screen and he tries to recreate some of that comic book stylistics to the screen version. For me, those touches worked at first – but gradually grew tiresome through the course of the movie. For the first hour, I enjoyed the movie, then gradually my enjoyed decreased, as the film starting going through the motions of the musician biopic.
The film’s opening passages are the best – showing Gainsbourg when he was a child named Lucien Ginsburg. This is 1940s, Nazi occupied France, and Ginsburg is Jewish, but he is not ashamed or embarrassed by this. When the Nazis say that all Jews must wear golden stars on their clothes, Ginsburg barges into the police station to get his first. In these opening scenes, Ginsburg is often followed around by a large, huge headed Jewish caricature – kind of like the beginning of Borat – which for many Jews, must have been how they felt being forced to wear these stars – that they were being singled out, and everyone was staring at them.
As the movie progresses, it drops that comic book creation, but creates another – an exaggerated version of Gainsbourg himself, with a huge nose and ears, who often stalks beside him and whispers into his ear – telling him to do bad things. By this point, Gainsbourg is played by Eric Elmosnino, and the resemblance to the real Gainsbourg is uncanny. Apparently, Sfar wanted Gainsbourg’s real life daughter, Charlotte (that fearless actress for Lars von Trier’s two most recent film Antichrist and Melancholia) to play the role, but she thought it would be too difficult for her to portray her father – on an emotional level, not an acting one. If Gainsbourg had played the role, it would have been an event. But Elmosnino does a remarkable job with the role. We see him as he becomes a star, has affairs with some of the beautiful women in the world – including Bridget Bardot (Laetita Casta) and Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon), who he’ll marry (and father Charlotte).
For much of the running time, Gainsbourg entertained me, or at least amused me. But as it progressed, it started to go through the motions of the biopic that we have seen too often by this point. Gainsbourg drinks and smokes constantly – is self destructive, and drives everyone around him away. Sadder, he never wins them back either.
Perhaps we like biopics about musicians we already know and love when we walk into the theatre. That may explain why I had much more patience with the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line or the Ray Charles biopic Ray. I didn’t know too much about Gainsbourg before watching this film, and while I recognized a surprising amount of the music (because it is in French after all), the film never really moved me the same way. And when it was all over, I was left with a question. What exactly was heroic about Gainsbourg’s life?