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.
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).
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.