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Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

Some twenty years after his death, it's still difficult to separate Serge Gainsbourg's outsize public persona from his music.  Even casual fans, be they real or the precocious protagonists of films like Youth and Revolt and the recent Submarine, tend to use the playing of Gainsbourg tunes, their conspicuous appreciation of the  chain-smoking Frenchman, as shortcuts to cool.  Such fans, who might enjoy a spin of pop classics like "Bonnie and Clyde" or "Ford Mustang," probably don't realize the breadth of Gainsbourg's musical output.  Starting within the fairly polite parameters of the French chanson - a tradition that he didn't take for a spin on the dance floor so much as hustle out into a dark, rain-glistening alley and have his way with -  the man born Lucien Ginsburg went on to compose some of the pop/rock tunes for which he is best known, to work in jazz, calypso, funk, reggae, electronica and seemingly every genre known to man.  This in addition to writing the soundtracks for more than 40 films, while directing and acting in few as well.    

Gainsbourg:  A Heroic Life makes little attempt to separate the legend from the facts of the man and his music.  Apparently, writer/director Joann Sfar had little interest in a standard biopic any more than he was interested in the facts of Gainsbourg's life.  If the point has not been made emphaticlly enough by the time the credits are ready to roll in "Gainsbourg," there is a quote from the director, making it quite clear, "Gainsbourg transcends reality. I much prefer his lies to his truths."      

Forty-year-old Joann Sfar is a prolific and oft-awarded French comic artist and comic book creator.  By all accounts, he's also a Serge Gainsbourg fanatic.  Sfar moved from Cannes to Paris in 1991, apparently with the express purpose of meeting the French icon.  Unfortunately, he arrived three months late.   Somehow, the fanatic had missed the national news of Gainsbourg's death.  He had written an entire comic book about his idol, the original of which he put in the family mailbox, never to receive a response.  Twenty years later and obviously much better established, he sent a sketchbook of film ideas to the Gainsbourg family.   They responded warmly to Sfar's ideas and approved the project.      

Gainsbourg:  A Heroic Life is the first film written and directed by Sfar (he has since made a film version of his comic, The Rabbi's Cat).  It's certainly informed both by his artistic point of view and his naked fandom of Gainsbourg.  As for the latter, when you read interviews with the director, he touches upon the singer's affair with Brigitte Bardot with the same sort of gleeful pride evinced by Gainsbourg's father, Joseph (Razvan Vasilescu) in the film.  What's not to love about the less-than-handsome son of Russian Jewish emigrants achieving stardom, saying anything he wants and bedding some of the great beauties of his time, if you're a Jewish kid growing up in France in the 70's and 80's?  Gainsbourg himself probably wouldn't object to a story of his life based largely upon his fantasies and half-truths.  Unfortunately, Gainsbourg:  A Heroic Life, despite some lively moments and a great turn from Eric Elmosnino in the lead, stalls somewhere between musical, conventional biopic and its moments of animated and fantasy invention.

Cavorting as it does through some of the singer's greatest hits and numerous of his most resounding causes celebre, Gainsbourg:  A Heroic Life resembles another recent film about a notorious Frenchman going about his work in the 1960's and 70's, Jacques Mesrine.  In the first of two films about the criminal and frequent prison escapee, Mesrine:  Killer Instinct, viewers are rushed through a theme park of Mesrine's early career, as if all we need to see are the law-defying highlights.  Fortunately, the overly-eager pacing was slowed to something slightly more illuminating in the second film, Mesrine:  Public Enemy #1.  One might well leave Gainsbourg:  A Heroic Life thinking at least a second film is in order.

Even with the presence of giant puppets imposing themselves on the action, the main detour here from convention, the most suspect move on the part of Sfar in his approach to Gainsbourg's story is one of pacing.  Any storyteller must decide when to compress and elongate time, here applying the temporal breaks and there judiciously hitting the gas.  Unfortunately, Sfar drives the story like a kid very much behind the wheel for the first time and perhaps one out for a joyride after quickly downing a six pack.

The relative salad days from the early-60's through early-70's feel rushed through.  This the period which saw the release of many of Gainsbourg's great singles and culminated with the concept album Histoire de Melody Nelson in 1971.  Before that dash through the 60's, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life begins, logically enough, with its subjects's childhood.  But here, the film seems to lag before it really gets started.

 What seems a disproportionate amount of time is devoted to Gainsbourg's Parisian childhood.  We see the assured young Lucien at art school in Montmartre, turning his head to ogle a nude model while the teacher tries to keep his attention directed more primly forward on a subject more in keeping with his age.  Lucien, clad in black short pants and turtleneck, a kind of bohemian schoolboy chic, practically seduces the model later and accompanies her to a cafe.  There they encounter the music hall legend, Frehel, whom young Gainsbourg apparently prefers to the great Piaf.  The two singers would have in common a blazing, self-destructive arc through their respective eras.  When the boy tells Frehel, "I know one of your songs, she hums a few notes of a tune familiar to many children in France.  "Later," says Lucien, meaning her career.  "The one I know is Coke (La Coco)."  This a tune that touches upon the benefits of cocaine, while also devoting a verse to an incident in which the singer recounts a bit of tipsy foolishness in which she plunged a dagger into the heart of her pimp, before her friends, "like a silly tart." "That's no song for a boy!, "  exclaims Frehel, clearly more amused than disturbed.  "But I'm wiser than my years," replies Lucien, this seemingly as much for the benefit of those of us in the audience as a charmed old Frehel.  Our young hero, perched on the bar, before which his skinny legs dangle in (of course) black socks, favors us with a robust rendition of the song, along with Frehel, the comely model and even a few musicians who join in.  Oh Lucien, you little scamp.

Sfar, it would seem, dwells in the childhood of the man who would become Gainsbourg to give us all the psychological insight we need to move forward.  The film's first scene has Lucien sitting next to a girl, the two alone on a beach.  "May I put your hand in mine?," he asks.  "No, you're too ugly," says the little girl matter-of-factly, before getting up and walking away.  Already a stoic, Lucien takes up a cigarette butt and has a smoke.  Had Sfar decided to begin his story in utero, one can only assume a tiny cigarette would been evident, dangling from embryonic lips.

Though his was not a particularly observant family, the young Gainsbourg was apparently strongly influenced by the Nazi occupation of Paris during World War II and their demand that all Jews wear those notorious yellow badges with the Star of David.  We see Lucien reporting to be the first to get his badge, part of a life-long pattern of flaunting, like his physical appearance, anything about his persona that might be deemed untoward, before the world can beat him to it.    

The Nazi's, of course, undertook all manner of ghoulish caricature and fabrication in their campaign against the Jews.  We see one such example, when Lucien walks down a darkened street.  He sees a Nazi propaganda poster in a window, in which a Jew is portrayed (to these modern American eyes, at least) as some sort of cockroach-cum-Mr. Potato Head, all giant head, jug ears and hook nose, with tiny dangling arms.  This being the imaginative 40's Parisian realm of Joann Sfar, the dread figure comes to life, emerging from the poster to trail Lucien down the street, like a runaway balloon from a hateful parade.  This also being the young Gainsbourg of Sfar's fairy tale, the boy and ballooned head forge a kind of friendship, the hero as always embracing his outsider status and whatever caricature the world might thrust upon him.

While Lucien is attending a rural boarding school where he gains popularity amongst other boys with his knowledge of and skill at rendering the naked female form, word comes of a Nazi visit.  The lad is hustled out into the countryside, where he is kept company by his giant friend.  This, frankly, has the feel of warmed-over Maurice Sendak, the boy and the beastie propped up against a tree together.  But young Gainsbourg refines the appropriated figure, turning the ill-intended Monsieur Pomme de Terre into a creature called La Guele (The Face).  It's an evolution Lucien demonstrates to his sister with a page-flipping comic of his own creation.  The adult Gainsbourg sometimes refers to his beak-nosed alter ego as Professor Flipus.          

The Jamaican recording session  - which included members of Bob Marley's band; the reggae legend was later infuriated to find that Gainsbourg had his wife singing salacious lyrics - is typical of Sfar's sometimes dubious, sometimes surprisingly unimaginative mise en scene.  Neither the studio setting nor the happy, nodding reggae folk seem particularly credible.  Similarly, the Parisian 60's and 70's settings, interior and exterior, involve neither a strong period evocation nor anything terribly interesting in their stead.  Some of the Paris locations were apparently picked for their proximity to scenes in one of Sfar's favorite films, An American in Paris.         

With Gainsbourg:  A Heroic Life, Sfar has said that he's essentially projecting his own obsessions as much as  the factual particulars of Serge Gainsbourg's life.  Unfortunately, those obsessions are not particularly original.  The presence of La Guele actually does work more often than not.  There's also an amusing scene in which Gainsbourg wakes up to find that he's sharing the Parisian flat of polymath and early advocate Boris Vian with the singing group, The Freres Jacques (Le Quatour), who just happen to be in full costume.  They later perform Gainsbourg's "Le Poinconneur des Lilas" on stage.

The puppets and costumed figures are not standard biopic fare, but somehow more would seem to be expected from a visual artist.  Beyond the attention-grabbing presence of the giant head, La Guele and the antic Freres Jacques, Gainsbourg:  A Heroic Life is neither as bold as its subject nor mindful enough of his music.  One need only recall the first three films of another visual artist turned filmmaker, Julian Schnabel, all biopics of a kind - Basquiat, Before Night Falls and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly - to begin to appreciate the possibilities of one artist doing justice to another on screen.  Even better, watch Francois Girard's 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould to see an original film treatment that adapts itself to a brilliant, enigmatic subject.    

Eric Elmosino as Serge Gainsbourg
You're likely to leave Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life with one or more of Serge Gainsbourg's great tunes in your head and hungry for more of his music.  You might also desire another film, a better film, to do the music, the man and his singular life justice.

The man himself



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