Serge Gainsbourg, like Charles Bukowski, is one of those blokes who should be banned as a role model for impressionable young men, who may start imagining they too can behave like disgusting old soaks and pull any gorgeous bird who comes into their orbit. Note to Gainsbourg wannabes – this only works if you’re a creative genius as well.
Joann Sfar, hitherto best known in France as creator of The Rabbi’s Cat BD (BD being short for Bande Dessinée or graphic novel, long regarded in France as a bona fide artform), makes his directing debut with Gainsbourg (Vie Héroïque), an adaptation of another of his BDs. It’s the latest in a recent rash of French biopics – of Piaf, Mesrine, Chanel – to reject the standard Hollywood template (cf Ray or Walk the Line) in which childhood trauma is followed by affliction/ addiction which is duly overcome, leading to triumph.
Sfar starts off in time-honoured style, with precocious young Lucien Ginsburg (as Gainsbourg was born, to Jewish Russian parents) obliged to wear a yellow star in occupied Paris, but the film soon takes off into its own bold and frankly rather bonkers territory when the gross anti-semitic caricature on a poster comes to life and develops into an imaginary friend and alter-ego. This is La Gueule (slang for face), who will shadow timid Serge and get up to all manner of mischief on his behalf – seducing beautiful women, shocking the bourgeoisie or carrying on with his health-giving diet of Gitanes and pastis, even after the first heart attack.
This bad-boy id, the equivalent of Brad Pitt’s character in Fight Club, is played by Doug Jones, the former contortionist who played the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth. Indeed, La Gueule is like the Pale Man redrawn by Gerald Scarfe with grotesquely oversized nose and ears; Gainsbourg exaggerated his own ugliness and considered it a driving force in his career. The doppelgänger conceit just about works, since the man himself admitted to an alter ego he called “Gainsbarre”, the self-destructive old boozer whose drunken misconduct included announcing on live TV that he wanted to fuck Whitney Houston (an incident we don’t see in the movie).
The structure is chronological, more or less, though this seems by default rather than imposed; the film dawdles through the 1950s and 1960s, scoots through the 1970s and, after the reggae version of La Marseillaise which led to Gainsbourg getting death threats, barely touches on the 1980s at all. Left Bank legends Boris Vian and Juliette Greco are present (if not necessarily correct – the actor playing Vian looks nothing like the beautiful man I know and love), as are teen-pop star France Gall and Brigitte Bardot – and supermodel-turned-actress Laetitia Casta’s turn as BB is one of the highlights.
Poor Lucy Gordon, who killed herself shortly after filming was completed, is a suitably gamine Jane Birkin, and we even glimpse young Charlotte. But there’s no Anna Karina (for whom he wrote a musical), no Eurovision Song Contest (Gall, competing for Luxembourg in 1965 with the Gainsbourg-penned Poupée de cire, poupée de son, sent our nation into mourning by knocking the UK’s Kathy Kirby back into second place), while the acting and film-making careers are skipped altogether.
For the British, of course, Gainsbourg will forever be the dirty old geezer who in 1969 lured an innocent young English girl into simulating orgasm on Je t’aime… moi non plus. But in France, this scandal was just one of many, and it would have taken a mini-series to do justice to them all. And British viewers may be baffled by some of the references; a bunch of clowns encountered at Vian’s apartment are a jokey representation of the Frères Jacques, a popular quartet who in 1958 recorded a cover version of Gainsbourg’s first hit, Le poinçonneur des Lilas.
But Sfar never set out to film a straightforward life story. “It’s not the truth about Gainsbourg that interests me”, he has said, “but his lies.” And this is nothing if not an ode to a mythomaniac who believed in his own legend so much that it either made or destroyed him, depending on your point of view. The film does give you some idea of the man’s eclecticism and innovation as a composer; I never realised before why an orchestral phrase in Initials BB always sounded so familiar; it’s a riff on part of Dvořák’s New World symphony.
Sfar is helped no end by an astonishing performance from Eric Elmosnino, who also performs many of the songs on the soundtrack. I don’t normally approve of prosthetic noses (I couldn’t take my eyes off Nicole Kidman’s in The Hours, or Sean Penn’s in Milk), but this one helped me think I was watching Gainsbourg himself, gliding and, eventually, stumbling through a stylised, slightly shambolic recreation of his myth. Serge himself would surely have approved.
This review was originally posted on theartsdesk.com in January 2010.
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