From chanson to reggae, Joann Sfar’s Gainsbourg is a soul-staking odyssey through Serge’s life and conquests, through Docteur Jekyll Et Monsieur Hyde.
Gainsbourg (Vie Héroïque)
Requiem Pour Un Twisteur by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
How can you ever hope to distil a life into a film? It’s the question that haunts every biopic as flatfootedly as their ghostly subjects. But the life of Serge Gainsbourg is perfect for cinema – a chansonnier savant, master of music, art, poetry and sex. Moreover, Gainsbourg provides a kind of kindred spirit for director Joann Sfar, a Jewish comic book artist, Gainsbourg fan and equally pun-loving fantasist. And it’s Sfar’s feeling for fantasy that really sets Gainsbourg apart, with young Lucien Ginsburg (later restyled as Serge Gainsbourg in honour of his Russian heritage and the English painter Gainsborough) externalising his fears and self doubts in the body-conscious shapes of La Gueule and Dr Flipus.
A chronology of the singer’s life from precocious boy in occupied France to ageing rockstar in louche Parisian nightclubs, Gainsbourg could just as easily have been called 8 Femmes. From his prepubescent painterly rendezvous with his own private life-model and a chance encounter with musette star Fréhel, his life is condensed into a series of musical-sexual adventures, a parade of absent wives and singing sex kittens; Elisabeth Levitsky, Françoise-Antoinette Pancrazzi, Juliette Gréco, Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birkin and Bambou. It’s a life moulded by women, and each is granted a suitably grand entrance. Anna Mouglalis as a low-backed Gréco descends the stairs with a high-heeled elegance to dance a Javanaise with Serge. It’s a love that lasts the length of a song. And Laetitia Casta as the initialed BB makes a suitably sexy entrance, striding towards Gainsbourg’s flat with kinky boots and an Afghan hound, blond tresses and hearts afluttering. Even the then unknown Jane Birkin sends her rosy accent floating through a smoky Parisian bar like a wayward arrow to find a lovesick Gainsbourg. The great duettist, Gainsbourg is lost without his women. This Clyde needs a Bonnie.
While this procession of women gives the film its voluptuous body, it’s Serge’s fascination with his own features that provides Gainsbourg with its spirit, his big nose and ears a bugbear for L’Homme à tête de chou, a niggling self-doubt that first takes flight when he recognises his own nose in an anti-Semitic propaganda poster. An enormous head, La Gueule, is the first receptacle for his self-loathing self-image. The other is Dr Flipus, an elongated, suited and booted piano-playing ladies’ man, the spirit that drives him to create (and procreate). And like the opening animated sequence, these are Sfar’s comic musings on une vie héroïque, Serge’s battle with his own very Jewish demons. It’s a fine line, and there are times Gainsbourg verges on the anti-Semitic – too much nostril-gazing to mosh to the Nazi Rock, but it’s a self-loathing inherited from its hero.
But for the most part, Eric Elmosnino’s exquisite exhumation of Gainsbourg creates an idol of the gitane-puffing poet; a boy’s own lothario for undersexed romantics. After all, maybe all his poetry and art is just an elaborate ploy to get laid. A painting by musical numbers, Gainsbourg skips through the jukebox of this Claqueur De Doigts with masterful ease, make-up and costume enough to accelerate the years – a tousled forelock, a sharper widow’s peak or a patterned shirt. There are delicious moments; a stuttery onstage debut in front of Boris Vian, Claude Chabrol as Gainsbourg’s scandalised producer of Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus, or a Cha Cha Cha Du Loup as Serge tries to persuade butter-wouldn’t-melt France Gall to sing Sucettes A L’Anis, a sugary song on fellatio.
The film changes pace as the Intoxicated Man descends into failed albums and alcoholism, eventually fleeing to Jamaica to find reggae soul, ‘camé à zéro’ Coco and Co. His splintering self becomes personified in Gainsbarre, a demonic double for the child rebel that just can’t say No, No Thanks, No. It’s a very public fall from grace, culminating in Gainsbourg’s controversial rendition of the Marseillaise, Aux Armes Et Caetera which he tries to legitimise by spending a small fortune on De Lisle’s similarly abbreviated text. Battling against the establishment, he becomes a self-destructive recluse, a 20th century Chatterton lost in his own fantasies.
Joann Sfar’s Gainsbourg is a visual treat, beautifully gilding France’s Sixties icons. And with his fantasy alter-egos, Gainsbourg is not your average biopic. It’s the tragic tale of a modern Baudelaire; all libido, liquor and loathing. Sfar never quite reveals the spirit behind the man – no love in his love affairs, no sense of a life lived, just an unstoppable fall through Les Amours Perdues. And while it lacks the mischievous humour or navel-gazing haze of Gainsbourg’s songs, it’s a fantastic Scenic Railway through the life of this philandering poet.
Gainsbourg, Vie Héroïque is released in the UK on 30th July 2010.