Monday, August 29, 2011

Blue Serge: Joann Sfar's GAINSBOURG: A HEROIC LIFE opens at Film Forum

In the press notes for his movie GAINSBOURG: A HEROIC LIFE, writer/director/
cartoonist Joann Sfar tells us, "I obviously know Gainsbourg's 'real life' like the back of my hand. But I did not want to make a 'realistic' or 'documentary-like' film." Europeans and British -- of a certain age, at least -- will probably know the life of Serge Gainsbourg, the famous French singer, songwriter and provacateur of the 1960s and 70s, like the back of their hand, too. But Americans? Not so much.

TrustMovies, for instance, had heard and enjoyed a number of Gainsbourg's songs (many of them provocative, and in ways not only sexual, though that was a very large component of their and his success), and he knew of his relationship with British actress/model Jane Birkin and the offspring of that union, the fine actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. So he was prepared to have M. Sfar, shown at right, fill in a lot of blank spaces.

Immediately post-viewing, and for the week or two since spent mulling over the movie, most of those spaces remain open. I do, however, have a much stronger sense of the single thing that, according to the filmmaker, set Serge's life on its exhaustive course: the poor fellow's "ugly" mug face.

In a whirlwind of fact, fantasy and memory, Sfar juggles live action with some very smart animation, culminating in the creation of the single thing that most sets the movie apart, Gainsbourg's alter ego consisting of a puppet-like face atop a real body. This "double" (played well by the versatile Doug Jones of  the Hellboy movies) follows our hero, acts as his sidekick, comments on his doings, and always manages to undercut him at prime moments.

As important as this character is to the film, you might think there would be an image of him somewhere in all the press materials or even the many sources for online photos (of which this movie has about as many as I have ever seen: one source offers you 63 photos from which to choose!).  But, no. The powers-that-be are keeping Mr. Alter Ego a big secret visually. To get a gander at him, you'll have to see the movie.

(Update: I just finally found this photo, above, of  Serge's double -- "The Mug" -- on GreenCine, along with an interesting review of the film by Vadim Rizov.) I wish the shot were taken at more distance, so you could see at a glance how well it combines the sense of animation with live action in a singe character.)

Meanwhile, here are a few other things you'll catch, as Gainsbourg meanders through its two-hour-two-minute running time. Sfar explores Serge's childhood as a Jew in pre/during/post WWII France. If the movie is to be believed -- and what the hell: we might as well! -- as a child, Gainsbourg was even more provocative: The scene in which he gets his Jewish "star" is a kind of Holocaust "classic" (above), while his meeting with the then-famous Fréhel (played and sung by Yolande Moreau, below, center) is cute and pungent.

The singer's relations with hot entertainers of the time, from Birkin (a wan Lucy Gordon) and Bardot (Laetitia Casta, below) to Juliette Gréco (Anna Mouglalis) are presented with occasional choice detail (Gréco's talking cat) and lots of camera caresses (Bardot), so we get a sense of glamour, fame and the spark between each pair but little more. It's all whirlwind visuals, impressive but shallow.
In the role of Gainsbourg, journeyman actor Eric Elmosnino, shown below, with 39 credits behind him, comes into his own in this role, giving a performance that stays within the somewhat narrow, psychologically-based range the director clearly wanted and yet manages to be memorable on its own. Elmosnino has the look, the charisma and even manages the sound of his real-life counterpart.

Clearly, M. Sfar did not want the kind of "this happened and then that happened" standard-form bio-pic, of which Olivier Dahan's La Vie en  Rose is one of the finer examples. But has he managed to expand and better the form with his own style?  I am not so sure. Via the character of "The Mug," he's created an alternative reality without much reality in it. His outdoor scenes, maybe due to budgetary reasons, feature few extras or traffic, thus calling attention to this lack, rather than to the lead characters on screen. And all the visual panache on display finally has the effect of giildng the lily, or in this case, the hothouse orchid.

As with so many movies devoted to musical celebrities, Gainsbourg, too, peaks in interest with the protagonist's early rise to fame, and then grows somewhat tiresome as our "hero," as usual, abuses himself, his family and his talent. Once we're over the charming, funny and -- as it's Serge -- provocative childhood years, we get to the main section devoted to -- surprise! -- the Gainsbourg variation on the usual musical biopic theme: sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. This is inevitable, of course. Yet despite Sfar's stylish surface and his use of the mug-faced "double" for psychological ballast, the movie is hollow.

The last section, featuring his work in the reggae realm (above), using the French National Anthem (a nice touch of completion, as La Marseillaise is also used to interesting effect in the early part of the film) turns out to annoy the French right wing. "Serge Gainsbourg stirs up antisemitism to keep the royalties rolling in," notes one angry critic. Ever the provocateur, in his last years, the fellow was still expanding his musical range, while sounding like a French Dylan, and looking a lot like Jean-Pierre Cassel.

As to the sub-title "A Heroic Life," after experiencing the movie, you may question the meaning of "hero." And yet -- if fighting one's own demons makes one heroic, why not? In that case, ladies and gentlemen, consider yourselves heroes. If this review sounds like a pan, I don't mean it to be. Serge Gainsbourg is simply too interesting a character whose life and times are bound to engage us -- if the film is at all well-done. While I wish this film were better, deeper, I am still pleased to have seen it. So may you be, if you have any interest in the man, his music and his life. If not, you might enjoy it purely for its look at and sound of France a half-century past.
Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, from Music Box Films, opens this Wednesday, August 31, at Film Forum in New York, and in Los Angeles (at the NuArt) and Irvine,California (at Edwards' University Town Center). A national rollout will follow, and you can check all the cities, dates and theaters here.

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