posted on January 25, 2010 18:00
What? Three weeks without the Gainsbourg-Birkins appearing on this blog? Luckily, and coinciding with the John Lennon biopic 'Nowhere Boy', we have the release of 'Gainsbourg: Vie Héroique' - the film by esteemed comic strip artist Joann Sfar of the life of France's greatest ever pop star.
We brought you a sneak preview last November. Noting the startling resemblance of Eric Elmosnino and the late Lucy Gordon to Serge n' Jane, we worried that the film would get stuck in a rut of impersonation.
Our fears were justified - 'Gainsbourg: Vie Héroique' is a fawning and superficial treatment of a fascinating and complex man.
It starts well, establishing themes and motifs. Young Lucien Ginsburg is insolent, artistic, charming, indulged by his mother - and Jewish in 1940s Paris. With the clever device of marionette-like alter-egos preying on Lucien's vivid imagination, Sfar captures the latent creativity and volatility of the future artist-provocateur. Lucien avoids the worst of Nazi occupation (i.e. deportation and death) by leaving Paris for a provincial boarding school and feigning non-Jewishness - at one point hiding in the woods for three days to avoid a local round-up. A key early scene has Lucien almost charming the clothes off a still-life model from his art class - here is the charisma that would make Juliette Greco, Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin fall for a man who was far from being a hunk. Seducing the ladies, evading the Nazis - he charms the viewer too, as do the rich colours and Lucien-esque energy of these opening scenes.
But suddenly Sfar jumps ahead to the adult Ginsburg and soon-to-be Gainsbourg (played by Elmosnino) who is now clumsy around women, troubled by dark thoughts and insecure about his art. What happened to charming young Lucien? Sfar offers no explanation and thereby breaks the narrative thread. He seems overeager to finish the hard work of character exposition and get to the good stuff: Serge playing his hits and frolicking with naked babes. (Sfar repeatedly makes the sexist faux-pas of showing Serge fully-dressed while his lady friend is nude. Perhaps to - ahem - redress this, during the later Birkin years there are some full-frontal shots of Elmosnino.)
From here on in, the film is reduced to variety-show impersonation that will please French audiences but bore the rest of the world. (Even Sfar is at it - he makes a cameo as balladeer Georges Brassens.) Anna Mougalis, as a smouldering Juliette Greco, has an appealing few minutes but is essentially a plot device to push Gainsbourg into leaving his wife and children for the pop star life. Former model Laetitia Casta struts on as Brigitte Bardot as if simply because we're at the point in the film where Gainsbourg writes 'Initials B.B.' (Rather witlessly, this is the music that plays as she enters.) Likewise, Gordon as Birkin appears on cue but personality-wise is as flimsy as her dresses. All the female characters in this film are one-dimensional and serve only to signpost certain points in Serge's life.
Speaking of signposts, too often Sfar hastily moves the film along with clunking story-marker scenes that reveal his background in attention-deficit cartoons. You should write an innuendo-laden song sung by an innocent young girl, fellow artist Boris Vian suggests to Gainsbourg - cut to Serge slithering up to prissy France Gall and proposing 'Les Sucettes'. On a beach in Jamaica a young boy sings 'La Marseillaise' to Gainsbourg: next thing he's recording a reggae version that incites violent protest from French ex-paratroopers. Most ridiculous of all is when old Mr Ginsburg, almost face-to-camera, breathlessly informs his wife (and us): 'He wrote a saucy song for Brigitte Bardot but her husband won't let them release it so now they must split up!' Potentially interesting episodes like the reaction to 'Je T'Aime (Moi Non Plus)' are left to wither on the vine.
As for the portrayal of Gainsbourg himself, Elmosnino is engaging and exact. However, with Lucien now grown up as Serge there's no further time or space allowed for character development. For instance, we never get any insight on Gainsbourg's creative vision or processes - he just heads over to the piano and starts playing fully-hatched 'Comic Strip' or 'Le Poinçonneur Des Lilas'.
Worse than that, Sfar clearly idolises Gainsbourg so much as to present his most unappealing moments as mere character colour or even as virtues. Every time Serge does something bad, Sfar rewards him. Serge walks out on his wife and two young children: this is his doorway to stardom while his young family are never heard of again in the film. Gravely ill from years of abuse, Serge calls the press to his bedside and chainsmokes triumphantly while on a drip. A drunken Serge fires a gun in front of young Charlotte and makes poor Jane lose the rag: next thing he's single and pulling a sultry young model in a nightclub. (Birkin and Charlotte also immediately disappear from the movie.) Right away Serge bullies this new girl: she just cosies up to him as a sugar-daddy and lovingly bears him a son called Lucien.
The original Lucien reappears in the film's climax, a concert disrupted by those reggae-hating ex-soldiers. The young boy had sung a few bars of the French national anthem earlier in the film - its reprise here, as French people young and old sing as one before turning on Serge, is heavy-handed symbolism. Yes, yes, they love him and hate him, he's both French and an outsider: Sfar seems to think this vignette will suffice in capturing the complexity of Gainsbourg and continuity of Ginsburg. In fact, it just feels like over-compensation for an hour of French pop star impersonations.
In summary, 'Gainsbourg: Vie Héroique' is an entertaining half-hour drama about young Serge that's spoiled by the 90 minutes of plastic telefilm tacked onto it. Go see it only if you're as uncritical a Serge fan as its director.
Here's the trailer: