Friday, 14 January 2011

Review: Gainsbourg

The story of French singer-songwriter, Serge Gainsbourg (best known for the controversial and explicit “Je t‘aime… moi non plus“); this film is a biopic - but not in the traditional sense. At the start, the title is followed by “vie heroique” (heroic life) and “un conte de Joann Sfar” (a fairytale by Joann Sfar). This is Sfar’s debut feature film, previously a graphic novelist, he utilized his creative skills and wrote a script about his idol Gainsbourg that has many flights of fantasy and moments of animation.

The young Lucien Ginsburg (before he adopted a different name) is carefree, with an impish charm. Unexpected perhaps, for a child growing up in 1940s Nazi-occupied Paris. His childhood is shown through a series of snapshots of moments that defined him. From his brilliant drawings (albeit of naked ladies to entertain his friends), to his late-night piano playing for his sisters, from his flirtatious meeting with a model, to his audacious and cheeky response to having to wear the yellow star as a sign that he is a Jew.

The film then jumps forward to show him as a grown man. Gainsbourg is played by little-known French actor Eric Elmosnino, who embodies the character well. The high points of the film are the musical moments he shares with the many ladies he encounters. There is an amusing scene where he tells young teen sensation France Gall he is going to write a song for her called ‘Lollipops’, which unbeknownst to her, was full of double-meanings and sexual innuendos. The actresses who play Juliette Greco, France Gall, Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin all deserve praise. Sadly, the young British actress who played Birkin, Lucy Gordon, died before the film was released.

Gainsbourg seems overly self-conscious and negative about his looks from the start of the film. The opening lines are him as a young boy asking “Can I put your hand in mine?“ and a girl replying “No, you’re too ugly.“ He is then accompanied throughout the film by an alter ego known as La Gueule. A creepy, lanky figure with a long nose, huge ears and spindly fingers who is constantly cynical and tempts Gainsbourg’s darker side, like a devil sitting on his shoulder. This figure is portrayed by the talented Doug Jones, who has appeared under prosthetics in many other films, including Pan’s Labyrinth (as the Fauno and the Pale Man) and Hellboy (as Abe Sapien).
Gainsbourg is shown to be a brilliant singer and musician but he also has many flaws. The drinking, smoking and womanizing all contribute to his slow downfall. The film mostly stays away from the darker, negative aspects of Gainsbourg’s life and tries to remain light and humorous, staying true to its claim as a ‘fairytale’ at the beginning. There is a quote from Sfar in the end credits, which translates as: “Gainsbourg transcends reality. I much prefer his lies to his truths.” This film may be one long  (a little too long) flight of fantasy by the director, nevertheless, it is enjoyable to get swept up in, even for those with little prior knowledge of the life and works of Serge Gainsbourg.

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