Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 28, 2010 7:24 pm 
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A French icon of many songs and many loves

The French title of this biopic of the great French singer-songwriter, personality and womanizer, which opened in France January 10, 2010, is Gainsbourg (vie heröique). The subtitle "Je t' non plus" is the title of Gainsbourg's most famous song, sung in a duet with Jane Birkin. This is the first non-animated feature of a major young French artist and writer. The 39-year-old Joann Sfar is himself a current cultural icon, having penned over 150 comic books and graphic novels for adults and children, including a graphic novel version of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's classic The Little Prince and his creation of a (1930's Algerian) rabbi's talking cat, Le chat du rabbin, a popular series soon to become an animated film. With this in mind it is not surprising that Sfar's biopic has, briefly, a talking cat; has a giant head from an anti-Semitic poster that comes to life; and gives its hero, Serge Gainsbourg, né Lucien Ginsburg, a tall, lean double, "La Guelle," the embodiment of his ugly mug, who follows him around throughout his life goading him to do naughty things and causing him trouble. It's a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde idea close to Gainsbourg's own later sense of himself.

As biopics go this one is richly evocative and appealingly frank and free. It's bluntly truthful about Gainsboug's womanizing and abuse of cigarettes and alcohol -- and his extraordinary exploits. He was the lover of a jaw-dropping stream of beautiful and amazing women, including Juliette Greco, herself one of France's most celebrated singers, Brigitte Bardot, and, most turbulently and lengthily, the famous English model and actress Jane Birkin. Birkin and Gainsbourg had a daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, now an internationally known actress and French icon in her own right. The film features a mouth-watering female cast. But it obviously isn't dutifully realistic or thorough. It doesn't even contain a great many of his songs, though singing is an important element in it. Best of all, Sfar doesn't feel obligated to follow his protagonist doggedly to the bitter end. He finishes off with beautiful abruptness somewhere in the early Eighties, when Serge was drunken but still very vigorous.

Gainsbourg is played by Eric Elmosnino, who has an ugly mug amazingly close to the real Gainsbourg's and who settles into the role with utter confidence, the more so in the later, more outrageous stages of the part. It seems lucky that Sfar's earlier ideas of using Charlotte Gainsbourg or Matthieu Amalric in the role had to be jettisoned in favor of a less-known actor who can more independently embody the man. One of the best elements of the film, however, is its early segment featuring the young, then, Lucien Ginsburg, played by the 10-year-old Kacey Mottet Klein as an irrepressible young sprite willing to try about anything. This shows the future songwriter in WWII boldly mocking authorities who make him wear a Star of David, trying to be an artist, puffing on cigarettes and persuading a curvaceous model to strip for him because he claims he can't draw a bra. His Russian Jewish father, who plays piano in a bar, forces Lucien to study piano, but is unsatisfied with the results till he hears him play a song at night. "You play better at night," he says.

Sfar was significantly helped by David Martí and Montse Ribé, 2007 Oscar winners for their work on Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. They are responsible for the makeup and invented creatures that augment the biopic element so nicely.

Gainsbourg is a figure of such continuing significance, and wrote music in so many genres, that he touches all generations of the French today. Americans can hardly imagine such national appeal in a single artist, whose music 2010 French twenty-somethings will tell you you absolutely must listen to and of whom when he died in 1991 the then French President François Mitterand said, "He was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire... He elevated the song to the level of art." With its big, fascinating cast and its wealth of unrolling incidents, this film begins to do justice to the man and his chaotic, intense life, but its best homage of all is its lightheartedness and flair.

The film has been warmly received in France with a 3.8/63 Allociné press score. Serge Karganski in Les Inrockuptibles wrote: "An ultra-personal biopic, elegant and sparkling, playful and serious, heavy-light, as was Gainsbourg himself... A complete success." Gainsbourg is an entertaining film worthy not only of further festival exposure but of wide US distribution, and it has just been seen at Tribeca and the San Francisco International Film Festival. I saw it at the SFIFF.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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