Friday, September 2, 2011

C'est la Vie

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life
Directed and written by Joann Sfar
With Eric Elmosino, Laetitia Casta, Anna Mouglalis, Lucy Gordon
In French with English subtitles; 122 minutes; released by Music Box Films

A visually inspired take on an eccentric performer’s unique artistry, Joann Sfar’s Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life looks at the beloved French singer-songwriter whose popularity has continued even after his death in 1991 at age 62, when he was mourned by millions in the streets of Paris.

Serge Gainsbourg became an idol at a time when musicians like Elvis and the Beatles were first transformed into global superstars. His droll, sardonic songs and provocative personality made him admired even by those who usually loathed pop music. (In the film, his father says after his initial success, “Even though pop music is shit, I’m proud of you.”) His affairs with the world’s most desirable women only increased his fame, and a constantly evolving musical style upped his hipness quotient, even 20 years after he died.

Writer-director Joann Sfar, animator and graphic novelist, makes his intentions known immediately that his film is no hagiography. Following a sardonic opening that introduces young Lucien Ginsburg being rebuffed by a pretty girl on the beach, who rejects his attempt at a kiss with a firm “No--you’re too ugly,” a wittily animated title sequence signals the film’s audacious stylization throughout.

Sfar’s riskiest conceit is The Mug, the singer’s monstrous puppet doppelganger that exaggerates his facial features like the oversized ears and hooked nose. This humorous caricature pops up at crucial moments, such as when the singer makes his stage debut or meets the women who become crucial to his art like Juliette Greco, Bridgette Bardot and Jane Birkin.

The Mug also literalizes Gainsbourg’s Russian Jewishness. During World War II, teenaged Lucien surprises local fascists by being first in line to pick up his yellow star that marks him as Jewish. When he leaves his boarding school to avoid the Nazis, who are coming to round up Jews, he hides in the woods with the Mug accompanying him. Obviously those and other events left their mark on him.

The appearance of the Mug, initially unsettling and even shocking, contextualizes Gainsbourg as a physically unprepossessing man with cultural and ethnic baggage. The Mug keeps him in check while he’s feeling on top of the world by dragging him down to a depressive state. Still, the literalness becomes cloying: there are less obvious ways to show Gainsbourg’s self-destructive personality than showing a life-sized puppet.

For those unfamiliar with Gainsbourg, the movie might be difficult to parse, since Sfar assumes a basic knowledge of Gainsbourg’s music, which is front and center on the soundtrack. Cleverly combining his original recordings with actors singing new arrangements, the songs bring authentic grounding to the surreal visuals, as do the performers themselves.

Of the three main women in Gainsbourg’s life (not counting his wife, barely noticeable after his initial ascent to stardom), Bridgette Bardot--who sang the spacey hit “Barbarella,” which Gainsbourg wrote especially for her--is impersonated by Laetitia Casta, who finds the right amount of coy playfulness in her glorified cameo, while Anna Mouglalis--whose severe dark beauty dominated Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky--plays Gainsbourg’s first pop singing love, Juliette Greco, with striking intensity.

The late Lucy Gordon (who sadly hanged herself after completing the movie), plays Gainsbourg’s final muse Jane Birkin, the English actress-singer with whom he had actress daughter Charlotte, with a sweetly naive tomboyishness that’s far more charming than the real Birkin’s onscreen persona. As Gainsbourg’s record producer, veteran director Claude Chabrol shines in what turned out to be his last screen role (he died last September).

But holding the movie’s disparate pieces together are Eric Elmosino, a dead ringer for the real Serge not only in his looks but also in his manner, bearing and that intangible je ne sais quoi that defines a star, and precocious Kacey Motet-Klein as Lucien. These outstanding actors transform Sfar’s portrait of the artist as both a young man and an adult into something that, while sadly tragic, is ultimately exhilarating.

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