There’s no need to be familiar with Serge Gainsbourg to be able to follow, enjoy and appreciate Joann Sfar’s imaginative biopic of the French singer (although you’ll almost certainly at least be familiar with the controversial hit single ‘Je t’aime ...moi, non plus’ that typifies his brand of classic Gallic cool), because the director isn’t all that interested in the facts anyway, he’s more interested in the image, the myth and the lies. Even more surprisingly, the director doesn’t appear to be all that interested in the songs (although they are certainly lovingly featured throughout the film), or even where they came from as much as the impressions they evoke and the women that Gainsbourg manages to attract through them, stars as important and as much a part of the French pop scene of the 60s and the 70s as Juliette Gréco, Brigitte Bardot, France Gall and Jane Birkin.
It’s a measure of the unconventional approach to the biopic that Sfar originally cast the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg to play the role of her father in the film. The role eventually went to a little known actor, Éric Elmosnino, who exhibits an extraordinary likeness for Gainsbourg over each of the periods in his life, but Sfar’s depiction of the star remains far from conventional, slipping into animation and reverie, seduced by the moment, by the character and the period, having Gainsbourg shadowed and stalked by a monstrously proportioned alter-ego caricature creation, known as “La Gueule” - The Mug - (the foam body-suit inhabited by Doug Jones of Abe Sapien fame in Hellboy), a representation perhaps of the singer’s self-image that he simultaneously embraces and struggles to live with.
This will be strange to many viewers, but not to anyone familiar with Joann Sfar’s vast collection of work as a BD comic-book artist, one also given over to autobiography on occasion (he’s the author and artist of a large three volume work on the Bulgarian-born French Expressionist painter Jules Pascin). Although working for the first time as writer and director in film (an animated adaptation of his key work ‘The Rabbi’s Cat’ is due for imminent release), Sfar’s touch is nevertheless clearly discernable and dominates Gainsbourg. It’s never so pervasive that it overwhelms the subject (although that point is certainly debatable particularly for anyone more inclined to favour a more conventional biopic, and the film is indeed subtitled as “a tale by Joann Sfar” at the insistence of Jane Birkin), but rather the director approaches his subject very much from a personal and impressionistic viewpoint, having much in common with Gainsbourg’s Russian-Jewish background (the French born Sfar is of Jewish origin from Russian Ashkenazi and North-African Sephardic parentage).
One of Sfar’s greatest comic-book works (from a personal perspective, which is by no means comprehensive) is ‘Klezmer’ (only one of the three parts is available at present in English translation, published in the US by FirstSecond), a colourful, adventure of wandering Jewish-Russian folk musicians, where the loose, shaky drawings and the vivid colouration, reminiscent of Pascin and Chagall, evoke the underlying qualities and sentiments of the music, and it’s the same kind of approach that Sfar brings to the music of Serge Gainsbourg, and as a film, Gainsbourg stands or falls by this personal, impressionistic viewpoint rather than through how well it covers the key moments in the career of one of France’s most outrageous and provocative of singers.
The provocation and the controversy is there, among others, in the playing of his hit ‘Nazi rock’, it’s there in his affair with Brigitte Bardot and the songs he wrote for her, it’s in the outrage of the pornographic ‘Je t’aime ...moi, non plus’ (Claude Chabrol appearing in a cameo as the shocked record executive, though not so shocked that he isn’t prepared to go to prison for an album full of such provocative material), and it’s there in Gainsbourg’s scandalous reggae desecration of the French National Anthem – but the film jumps elliptically between the moments and affairs, filling them with a mood of cigarette smoke and a drug and alcohol-fuelled haze in place of harsh realism, with little sense of the manipulated cause-and-effect that is all too often crowbarred into biopics. The film is also cleverly shot in the manner that it evokes the various periods and the people that characterise them – note for example Laetitia Casta’s convincing transformation into Bardot through some clever semi-nude reclining shots that evoke her promotional photos and movie image.
Despite an extensive section covering the young Lucien Ginsberg as a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied France during the 1940s, little is learned about the formative musical influences of Gainsbourg in any conventional sense other than a fondness for the bawdy pub songs of Fréhel (Yolande Moreau) (and later for the bar-room crooning of Charles Aznavour), but the film nevertheless successfully creates a credible yet enigmatic character, navigating through the various eras with remarkably fluid ease, aided considerably by an at times striking impersonation of Gainsbourg in attitude and style from Éric Elmosnino, and from a cast littered with many modern-day Gainsbourg-influenced French musicians that adds to the timeless and non-linear biographical nature of the film. Fans of the singer might prefer a more conventional biographical approach to this very personal and fictional impression of the singer-songwriter, but unless you are Jarvis Cocker, other than in name and reputation Serge Gainsbourg hasn’t made much of an impact on pop and rock music on this side of the English channel, so this fascinating film (it’s a film much more than a biopic) should provide an intriguing introduction to the man and his music, and its playing loose with fact and fiction is a method that would have probably appealed to Gainsbourg himself.
Last updated: 26/06/2018 09:59:30