Gainsbourg (France 2010)

Eric Elmosnino as Serge Gainsbourg

Gainsbourg is a biopic about Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991), born Lucien Ginsburg in 1928 into a family of Russian-Jewish émigrés. He was a major figure in his native France as a songwriter, singer, actor, novelist, and all-round provocateur, one of the most sacré of all the monstres sacrés in modern French culture. He might be seen a cross between John Lennon, Bob Dylan and, in the final stage of his life, the late Oliver Reid. Gainsbourg is generally little known in the English-speaking world – apart from the ‘succès de scandale‘ of the heavy-breathing number,  ‘Je t’aime moi non plus’ in 1969, banned by the BBC and incurring the wrath of the Vatican. Gainsbourg embraced the myth he had created too fully, and eventually drank and smoked his way into oblivion, dying of a heart attack aged 62 in 1991. On his death, President Mitterrand said Gainsbourg “elevated song to the level of art” and compared him to Baudelaire and Verlaine. His former home on the Left Bank has become a shrine even more popular than Oscar Wilde’s and Jim Morrison’s. I came to this film with mixed expectations.

As a fan of the both Gainsbourg and the French chanson tradition I was curious as to how Gainsbourg and his associates would be portrayed. On the negative side, however, the biopic is probably my least favourite genre. There is a something about its familiar tropes that can crate a dull and predictable viewing experience: the awkward  introduction of famous characters, (“Byron, meet Shelley. Keats is over there.”), the ponderous exposition, historical events being signalled by a newspaper headline or newsreel, the inevitable rise-and-fall trajectory, the childhood trauma or period of difficulty as an adult followed by affliction/addiction which is duly overcome, leading to triumph.

Part of the problem I find with the biopic is that the plot is usually structured in what are deemed to be important episodes in the lives of their subjects and the films often stagger from episode to episode like a filmed Wikipedia entry, frequently lacking in any real insight into what inspired the characters to achieve what they did. Another problem is that biopics tend to adhere the pretence that the screen can be an unmediated window onto the past which the biopic shares with its close relative, the historical film. For the historian and film scholar Robert Rosenstone, a better strategy than traditional realist film when portraying history (and by implication, biography) is an approach which in which the film foregrounds itself as a construction, playing with the past and creatively interacting with its traces – what he calls postmodernist history films which are fragmentary, partial, playful or incomplete.

Some biopics successfully adopt this approach, such as the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007) which uses six actors of both sexes to portray the various ages and facets of Dylan (and in which, interestingly, the role of one of the wife of one of the Dylan’s wives is played by Gainsbourg’s daughter Charlotte). And Agnès Varda’s film on her late husband Jacques Demy, Jacquot de Nantes (1991), which mixes a ‘re-enacted’ narrative of Demy’s early years with actual footage from his childhood, punctuated with voiceovers and cuts across to clips from his films, as well as contemplative shots of the ailing Demy.

Gainsbourg is not entirely free of the pitfalls of the biopic but by employing a number of non-realist techniques Joann Sfar has  brought a refreshing originality to the genre and avoids the pretence that “this is how it was.” (Significantly, in the title sequence, the film is referred to as a conte, i.e. a tale, and the end credits quotes Sfaar’s disclaimer that “ I love Gainsbourg too much to hem him in with reality. It’s not the truth about Gainsbourg that interests me, but his lies.”) Sfar manages to liberate the story from the genre’s predictabilities by his fantastical artistry. Significantly he comes from the world not of film but of the bande dessinée (or ‘BD’) – i.e.  cartoons which are very popular in France and with adults as much as children.

Sfar’s main departure from cinematic realism is to create an alter ego for Gainsbourg, a sort of animated manifestation of his psyche, a tall, rather elegant, chain-smoking caricature of Gainsbourg (or, rather, how Serge sees himself), sporting a ridiculously oversized nose, beady eyes. and prominent ears (one of the film’s major themes is the idea that Gainsbourg was chronically ill-at-ease with his appearance) who informs Serge that he is his guelle (‘gob’ or face in French slang). La Guelle is relentless in his efforts to advance Serge’s music (at the expense of his painting, his children and his character), encouraging him to abandon painting and burn his canvasses, to write bubblegum songs for teen pop singers (French rock was pretty poor and derivative then), to play a cruel trick on the naïve, eighteen-year-old singer France Gall, and so on. Some reviewers found this device to be intrusive and distracting. I found it an ingenious way of dealing with a complex life while avoiding some of the pitfalls of the traditional biopic.

Doug Jones as La Guelle de Gainsbourg

Another strong point of the film is its superb casting and performances. Gainsbourg is played by a theatre actor new to film, Eric Elmosnino who, with a little help from prosthetics, achieves a remarkable resemblance to the singer whose mannerisms he captured to an uncanny degree. Also notable is the performance of Kacey Mottet Klein as the young Lucien, portraying him as a smart-alec of a precocious child – perhaps a projection back from Gainsbourg’s adult persona, as biographical sources suggest a shy insecure child and adolescent. Another outstanding performance was by Lucy Gordon (who tragically committed suicide during post-production). She captures the young Jane Birkin’s gamine looks and breathy delivery to perfection.

These were supported by a number of excellent cameos of people involved in Gainsbourg’s life, both romantically and professionally. In her five minutes on screen, Anna Mouglalis perfectly conveyed the feline charms of Juliette Greco (and it was almost appropriate that her maid is a talking cat! – another of Sfar’s audacious challenges to realism).

Anna Mouglalis as Juliette Greco

Sarah Forrestier displayed the ingénue qualities of singer France Gall and Doug Jones deserves special mention for his performance as La Guelle which he carried out with the same aplomb as he did for the creepy faun in Del Torro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and as one of the Gentleman monsters in ‘Hush’, the ‘silent’ episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And the veteran new wave director Claude Chabrol puts in a brief comic shift as Gainsbourg’s music publisher for the scandalous recording, ‘Je t’aime, moi non plus’, playing with relish a combination of anxiety about the inevitable backlash when the song hit the airwaves and delight at the prospect of loads of money flowing in.  (see clip below)

Even more theatrical and explosive is Laetitia Casta’s performance as Brigitte Bardot  as she strides onto the screen in slow-motion down a long hallway, in leopard-skin coat and thigh-length boots, a performance marked by an uninhibited sensuality as she captured BB’s mannerism’s and voice (which seems to me to be modeled on Bardot’s performance in the opening scene of Godard’s Le Mépris /Contempt). This was one of the most memorable and enjoyable portions of the film and the standout among several tremendous cameos, all the more laudable since Casta is s known as a ‘supermodel’ rather than an actor. Here’s the opening of this sequence.

One problem the film poses for non-French/non-francophone audiences is the lack of familiarity with some of the characters and incidents in the film. (Perhaps when the UK version of the DVD comes out they should insert hyperlinks to the many YouTube clips which are bound to compete with any biopic about a modern subject!) Brigitte Bardot is well know in the UK, even to younger audiences, but probably not the singer Juliette Greco, muse of the post-war Left Bank existentialist movement. Boris Vian, who influenced Gainsbourg’s early career, was a novelist, trumpet player and singer-songwriter, again part of the Sartre-Beauvoir circle, who wrote one of the most powerful anti-war songs, ‘Le Déserteur’.

The ‘Sucette’ scandal is alluded to in the film but probably wouldn’t make much sense to those who aren’t familiar with story of how Gainsbourg writes a song ‘Les Sucettes’ (lollipops) for 18-year-old France Gall (for whom he had written a song which won the 1965 Eurovision Song Contest – for Luxembourg, not France) which is ostensibly about a girl’s love for lollipops but actually about the joys of oral sex. The film hints that she was aware of what Gainsbourg was up to although Gall later stated that she felt betrayed. However, she said it was impossible to be angry at  Gainsbourg and continued to work with him.

Overall, I was impressed by the film’s ambition (especially from a first time director) and if such ambition sometimes goes hand in hand with a certain clumsiness – it can be a bit incoherent and fragmented in places – I would rather have this film than a dozen safer approaches. Without  completely losing steam, it feels far heavier toward the end, perhaps because Gainsbourg himself grew increasingly dissolute towards the end of his life. The strength of the film was in its mise en scène (including performance) rather than the screenplay.

But that’s a relatively minor complaint and the film has a wonderful scene near the end celebrating Gainsbourg’s heroic defiance of French right-wing anti-Semitism with his  reggae recording of the national anthem, ‘La Marseillaise’, a recording that caused an even bigger furore in France than ‘Je t’aime, moi non plus’. He was accused in the right-wing press of provoking anti-semitism and there were calls for his French nationality to be revoked (despite the fact that he was born in France). In the film we see an angry ex-paratroopers demonstrating in Strasbourg. The Wailers, Bob Marley’s backing band, were due to be there but were told not to come for their own safety and we see Gainsbourg deciding to confront the demonstrators by declaring, clenched fist raised in the air, that it is a revolutionary song and inviting the audience to sing it with him in the original spirit, thereby discomfitting the rightists who didn’t know whether to boo or join in; after a moment’s hesitation they did the latter. (Incidentally, in the original French release, the scene ends with the young Lucien observing this scene and then going up on the stage  himself. This was omitted in the version I saw the other night and I can’t think why. An earlier omitted scene was of the young Lucien asking his mother for a toy revolver as he loves cowboy comics. This scene, although it doesn’t quite explain Gainsbourg’s obsession with hand-guns, does contextualise it. Since these cuts together last just over a minute they can’t be due to reducing running time and so it’s all the more annoying. I didn’t notice any other cuts).

Overall, Gainsbourg was a refreshingly ambitious take on the life of an artist, which I found poetic, elegant and touching. It must be in with a shout of Cesar Awards (probably too ‘French’ for the Oscars) in a whole number of categories.

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19 comments

  1. Stephen Gott

    I too was surprised to see the “UK Re-cut Version” of this film at my local venue,even though it had been advertised as the longer version. At first I thought that maybe the British Board Of Film classification had cut it, but on checking the BBFC Website I found that it had been un-cut. The version I saw had a running time of 121m 45s, with a 15 certificate, having been classified on the 9th july,2010. In fact, the BBFC had previously classified the longer “French Version” of the film back on the 26th April 2010 at 135m 19s, again un-cut with a 15 certificate. It appears that both versions of the film were released on the 30th july 2010, but why? In fact, why do we even need a “UK Re-cut Version” of “Gainsbourg”?

    To add further insult. According to the BBFC website, the DVD of the film, is due out on the 10th January, 2011. This again appears to be the “UK Re-cut Version, un-cut with a 15 certificate, coming in at 116m 51s (allowing for a 4% speed difference,between film and DVD). Why are we not being given the opportunity of seeing the “French Version” on DVD? Who knows! I guess its just one of the vagaries of film releasing.

    • Manon

      And if even if you want to find the french version with an english sub it’s going to be hard : until now there is no release in france of the dvd with english subs(wich happen sometimes) France doesn’t open a lot their culture to other countries.

    • venicelion

      Sight & Sound listed the film at 135 minutes but that would have been correct before the second BBFC listing. The print I saw seemed to last longer than 121 mins and my (admittedly rough) timings suggested something more like 130 mins. I’ll try to check with the projectionists. It’s difficult to tell what might have been cut or not.

      I enjoyed the film a lot, but I did think that it rather petered out. Ginnette Vincendeau in S&S suggests that the director didn’t want to delve into the ‘seedy later life’ of Gainsbourg but the restrictions that the biopic structure imposes on a filmmmaker means that for those of us outside France who haven’t seen the embarrassing TV shows etc., the reasons for cutting the story short aren’t so obvious. I felt cheated that the notorious incident involving Gainsbourg and his daughter (the song ‘Lemon Incest’) wasn’t featured. What I mean is that the narrative expectation of the biopic led me into waiting for it. In ‘real life’ I’ve no desire to cause pain to Charlotte Gainsbourg by dragging it out again. (The child who played the young Charlotte was remarkably like how I imagine she was at that age.)

      I guess the winter nights will now be spent teaching our cats to greet visitors.

  2. des1967

    Lemon Incest came from Gainsbourg’s penchant for punning and other sorts of wordplay, and the first two syllables of “un zest de citron” sound like incest, so he makes a song about it. By this time he was almost constantly drunk and his judgement – never a strong point – was more than usually impaired. When he was asked about actual incest, he was horrified. Charlotte has always cme across as level headed, especially given her background. Perhaps another reason Sfar left out much of this period is that there is nothing so boring as drunk on screen.

    An interesting piece ongainsbourg and his songs can be found here.

    http://www.eggparm.com/gainsbourg/gainsbourg.html

    • venicelion

      Thanks Des — an interesting site which explains a few things.

      I came across a comment that said the original plan was to cast Charlotte Gainsbourg as her father but that she withdrew when Sfar found Eric Elmosnino.

      The projectionists at the National Media Museum say they have a listing of 123 mins for the film.

  3. des1967

    Yes I think i remember something about that in Rolling Stone. Can’t imagine it – would have gone much further than Todd Haynes in “I’m Not There”!

    French version 135 minutes and the one i saw in Aberdeen last week is given as 122 minutes – yet I can only recall cuts of just over a minute. Will have to wait till the DVD comes out.

  4. keith1942

    Re the cut Gainsbourg. I saw them film in 35mm and I thought it ran under 120 minutes. The cinema said that it was 121 minutes.
    To be honest I thought there was a reel missing in the early part of the film. It jumps from the 1950s to the 1960s. There is a scene where Gainsbourg enters a bar with a blonde woman: I realised later it was his first wife! And the affair with Greco was very short in screen time. Also, the early part of his performing and recording career seemed to be missing. Even given the fact that the plot is presented in a fragmentary fashion, this seemed cavalier.
    I contact the Distributors Optimum Releasing, as their publicity [including a boklet] makes no mention of running times. They confirmed 135 minutes and 122 minutes. They also ‘explained’ that the shorter version was the ‘director’s cut’!
    I think we need information about what is cut. I don’t hold any hope for the DVD. Even if there are ‘missing scenes’ they are unlikely to be integrated into a longer cut.

  5. des1967

    The blond woman is his second wife. His first wife is brunette and she’s the one he meets at art school and with whom he has sex on Salvador Dali’s bed (in “real life” she was some sort of assistant to Dali which explains why she has the keys). He leaves her just after “la Guelle” makes its influence felt. The next woman – the blonde – is his second wife. The 50′s/60′ are adumbrated by a few influential characters in his life/career (Boris Vian, the Freres Jacques singing group, Greco, France Gall and Bardot) and now we are in the late 60s in time for Jane Birkin’s entry. The only transition I felt was missing was from his childhood/early adolescence when one moment he is in Paris with his family and the next he is in the provinces in the catholic boarding school.

    Don’t suppose it will become clear till the DVD’s come out

    • Manon

      I am sorry to put it here erase it after if possible but I don’t know where to notify it : the strange character played by Doug Jones isn’t “la Guelle” but “la Gueule” which mean “the Face”(even if it is quite impolite and refers most of the times to animals’ faces) Gainsbourg is personifying his face (which he find very ugly that’s why he call it Gueule and not visage)

      Hope my english is not too bad

  6. Rona

    The idea to cast Charlotte as Serge does seem to directly reference Haynes’s idea in I’m Not There in relation to Cate Blanchett as the mid 60s Dylan. I rather like the idea of this gamine, female incarnation – in keeping with the aspects of the film that used the whole story of it as a malleable fantasy. I too felt the apparent time jump – the fantasies of the younger Serge, the manifestation of his childish fantasies in this most sexual/dissolute of French icons was the engaging part for me – almost as if his life was an extention of his artwork as a child, always living in a fantasy he had drawn/created. The fact that it characterised Gainsbourg as an artist first and foremost created a sense of loss in his ‘diversion’ into music – however creatively great.

  7. venicelion

    Good to see everyone getting stuck in to discussion of this interesting film. Just in case you haven’t noticed, it has taken $547,000 in the UK + Ireland so far after two weeks on 50 prints with a weekly drop-off of only 35% and a screen average of $2,779 for 10th place. In France it took over $9 million in February. French cinema is currently on a roll in the UK. Last week also saw Heartbreaker passing $1 million after 6 weeks and still looking strong at No 16, Igor and Coco debut at 11 and Le Concert at 18 with only a 6% drop-off for $266,000 after 2 weeks. There are no UK films in the UK Top Twenty but Tamara Drewe is doing very well in France.

  8. des1967

    On Rona’s point about casting, I feel the main problem about casting Charlotte – and there are many – is that the audience would find it very difficult to create the necessary distance, aware that Charlotte is not only her father’s daughter but also that the actress would have very strange emotions (especially as she is – along with Gainsbourg’s other children and Jane Birkin – the keeper of the flame). It would be difficult to watch a character without wondering what the actor (as ‘herself’ as it were – and we are in grave danger of disappearing up our own posteriors here! – was feeling (as herself). As it were… Once the casting of Elmosnino actually happened, it’s more difficult to imagine an alternative.

    On Roy’s comments about the current popularity of French films, I went to see Coco and Stravinski tonight, along with another ten people for the 6.20 showing, and might come up with a blog but it would be of the “not-as-bad-as-they-(the critics)-say” variety. What intrigues me are the reasons particular French films get a UK release. Once upon a time there were star directors, particularly Truffaut, maybe Chabrol. More recently, certain actors seem to make the films marketable across the Chanel/Atlantic- particularly Deneuve, Depardieu, maybe Huppert, certainly Binoche – but now? Reno? Tautou? Durris? Paradis (the ultra-popular Johnny Depp connection)? Certainly the reason I went to see Coco & Igor (apart from the fact there was nothing else watchable I hadn’t seen) was the presence of Anna Mouglalis who I think could be the on the verge of a certain sort of stardom. Whether it’s the kind that makes films bankable abroad, time will tell.

    • venicelion

      I’m sure that the directors and stars do help French films get distribution, but I think that other institutional factors are just as important.

      Firstly the French cultural agencies put far more into helping French films sell abroad than most other similar agencies in other countries. (See the Unifrance website.)

      Secondly, recent developments have seen several UK distributors keen to take French product. For years, we relied on Artificial Eye (White Material, Le Refuge) as the main distrib of French films. I think that New Wave was set up by two people previously at Artificial Eye and they have released 35 Rhums, Wild Grass and Bluebeard. The biggest player in the game is Optimum (Gainsbourg) as they are part of Studio Canal and therefore have an advantage in acquiring rights to many French films. Gainsbourg was also funded in some way by Universal through Focus Features (a link that goes back to the period when Vivendi owned Universal). Finally, Revolution, one of the more innovative smaller distributors had a big success with Tell No One a couple of years again and they’ve tried repeating the trick with several other French films – they’ve handled Heartbreaker pretty well and I think that it is one of the real hits of the summer, much to my surprise.

  9. keith1942

    Re Des’ information, it now seems we are missing his first wife entirely!
    I have to say that I find that particular elipsis over-abrupt, unlike some later in the film. I was wondering if there is a detailed plot description somewhere of the original cut? So far I have not found one

  10. Rona

    Actually, I now hate to admit, it is the resonance of the relationship of Charlotte Gainsbourg to Serge that would make that casting/playing interesting – but I accept that there might be wider problems. I consider her herself as an actress with bankability outside of France – in French and foreign releases. And what about (ironically) the idea of Kristin Scott-Thomas as a marketable actress/star of French film latterly?

  11. Rona

    On Roy’s point on New Wave films – yes, it was Robert Beeson and Pam Engel from Artificial Eye. I’ve come across them because they distributed Desperate Optimists debut feature film Helen – a UK outfit who have established a reputation for innovative community based films before their (very successful – critically) leap into conventional feature length films. New Wave seem to be building a reputation – carried on from previous roles – for identifying really interesting, offbeat film fare for that under-nourished audience.

  12. MikeTaylor

    One small addition to the list of excellent cameos – the remarkable Yolande Moreau as Réhel.

    • des1967

      Yes, absolutely. She seems to be going through a very fruitful period in her career, especially since Amelie. She was excellent in Seraphine, and she did excellent work in Paris, je ta’aime, The Beaches of Agnes, Micmacs (though didn’t like it much). But Louise-Michel was great disappointment. It’s a comedy about a group of workers who get made redundant and ripped off and hire a hitman to get the boss. It has superficial similarities with Renoir’s Le Crime de M. Lange but I’m afraid her performance was awful – or maybe that’s how she was directed. But a pretty positive balance sheet in the last few years all the same.

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