Search results for: gainsbourg

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.

The Snowman (UK-US-Sweden 2017)

Michael Fassbender as Harry Hole

I’m not sure I’ve ever been to watch a new film that has been so heavily criticised and denounced by both critics and audiences. It isn’t the total disaster those reviews suggests, but given the array of talent in front of and behind the camera, it isn’t great. Something has clearly gone wrong and I’m still struggling to see where the blame lies.

The Snowman is an adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s 2007 ‘Harry Hole’ novel. There are now 11 crime novels featuring the maverick cop. The Snowman is No7 in the series, though numbers 1 and 2 were translated into English after The Snowman. So, for UK readers it was number 5. The first question then is, why start with No. 5? The response has been so poor that it seems unlikely any more will be adapted in English. Why it was adapted at this point seems to be a consequence of the usual crap which surrounds studio pictures. The novel appeared in English in 2011 – at the peak of ‘Nordic Noir‘ in the UK/US. A quick glance back through my posts and the various events I organised on that topic suggests that this was indeed the case.

Nesbø has always been ripe for adaptation. His self-confessed love of American culture pushes his crime fiction away from the ‘Nordic Noir’ ideal that developed from Mah Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (though he claimed his own links to the Martin Beck books with an introduction to one of the re-issued novels). His hero Harry Hole likes rock music (Nesbø played in a band) and American films and there is much more of a Hollywood thriller feel to the novels. Perhaps he is like Stieg Larsson to a certain extent – but far less overtly political. Harry is like Larsson’s characters though – in the sense that he is personally involved in the narratives. Either he is targeted by the villain or the narrative is introduced by something out of his past. In The Snowman, the Harry-Rakel-Oleg triangle is central in more ways than one.

My memory is that Scorsese was named quite early on as interested in making a Harry Hole movie, but instead the first Nesbø film was Headhunters (Norway 2011), adapted from a standalone novel and followed by Nesbø’s involvement in a TV series, Okkupert (2015), a political thriller imagining Norway occupied by the Russians. The Snowman arrives perhaps four or five years too late. I don’t think Nordic Noir is finished but it doesn’t have the same ‘must see’ cachet any more.

Rebecca Ferguson as Katrine, Harry’s new partner

The next issue is comprehension. The Harry Hole novels are in a distinct series – they have the overall narrative ‘arc’ that we now have to acknowledge for long form narratives and in that sense they match both the Beck and Wallander books – though I find Harry a less appealing character than either of the other police officers. Each novel draws on what has happened before so The Snowman relies on audience knowledge about Harry and about Rakel and her son Oleg. Harry is not married to Rakel, yet she is the love of his life. Oleg is not his son, but Harry tries to act like his father. If you don’t know this – and Harry’s history of alcoholism and his loner status within the Oslo Police – you can’t understand him. The script (which has some input from Nesbø, some from Søren Sveistrup, the Danish writer of The Killing and some from the Brits, Peter Straughan and Hossein Amini) seems to me something of a lash-up – as if it has been re-written many times. It does include the information about Harry, but not in an easily understandable way. The book is 550 pages so a great deal has to be left out or dealt with in different ways. Some of the changes are puzzling. The novel opens with a prologue in 1980, in which the date is signalled by a radio announcement about Reagan’s election victory over Jimmy Carter. It then comes forward to 2004 and victory for George W. Bush. In the film, ‘the past’ features a boy being quizzed about Norwegian modern history and there are no American references.

Charlotte Gainsbourg, under-used as Rakel

The need to reduce and select the narrative data explains why, even for someone who knows the Harry Hole novels reasonably well, the narrative seems complex. Against this, the cinematography offers us plenty of snowbound landscapes and there is a very talented cast. Alas, the way they are used is also problematic. I was watching out for Sofia Heflin, the Swedish star of the Nordic Noir series The Bridge and it was only at the end of the film that I realised she had been a character who was quickly killed off. Similarly, the Norwegian actor Jakob Oftebro, a star from Kon-Tiki (Norway 2012) and many other films, has a minor role. There are some Nordic actors in bigger roles and I enjoyed the irony of Jonas Karlsson playing the villain in this film and the despised police ‘manager’ in the Swedish Beck TV series. But mostly it is British and American actors filling the lengthy cast list. Apart from a child with an American whine, most of the actors use what might be described as unaccented ‘International English’ and I can live with that (although a Norwegian pronunciation of ‘Hole’ might have worked better). The tragedy of the film is to see a director such as the Swede Tomas Alfredson, internationally lauded for Let the Right One In (Sweden 2008) and the English language Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), lose control of a production which also boasts Dion Beebe as cinematographer and Thelma Schoonmaker as editor, not to mention Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson and Charlotte Gainsbourg as the leading cast members.

Michael Fassbender is a fine actor and it sounds like great casting, but he isn’t my idea of Harry Hole – and that’s always the problem with adapting a novel with a ‘known’ character. Audiences who revere Fassbender but don’t know Nesbø’s character will also be puzzled I think. Val Kilmer and Toby Jones just seem odd as Bergen police officers and Anne Reid as a next door neighbour in Oslo is a surprise for British audiences (she has been an important TV actor in the UK for many decades). Working Title, the most successful British film production company through its long relationships with Universal and Studio Canal, succeeded with Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor . . . , but that was a StudioCanal project. The Snowman is a Universal picture and I wonder if that is the problem. The Snowman seems similar to David Fincher’s Hollywood version of The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo (US 2011) – but at least that film proved popular with audiences. I’ve rather lost interest in Harry Hole since Book 9 and now it looks like there won’t be any more film adaptations. Now, if they’d started with The Redbreast (Book 3, the first to be translated) it might have worked, but it would probably have been too ‘Norwegian’ for a big budget international thriller. Such is the film business. Instead of a distinct Nordic Noir, Hollywood wants another snowbound police thriller. Here’s the trailer for The Snowman, which is visually intriguing – but the dialogue is terrible. Pretty much sums up the film I’m afraid.

La famille Bélier (France-Belgium 2014)

Paula (Louane Emera) and her father (Francois Damiens). He is trying to 'feel' what she is singing .

Paula (Louane Emera) and her father (François Damiens). He is trying to ‘feel’ what she is singing .

A big hit in France and now distributed around the world, La famille Bélier is notable for two reasons. First it deals with music and singing. This is topical in two ways. As in many other countries, French TV has picked up on the popularity of talent shows with viewer participation. This is how Louane Emera, the lead actor in La famille Bélier, first came to the attention of French audiences. She reached the semi-final of the French version of The Voice in 2013, after being ‘saved’ by the audience, possibly because of her own tragic story of being orphaned a few months earlier. The television appearances helped her to get the role of Paula in the film and since then she has won an award at the Césars (the French equivalent of the Oscars) and in 2015 has had a No 1 single.

In the film, Paula is a teenager who discovers she has a voice almost by accident and is forcibly encouraged to learn how to use it by her school’s music teacher who wants her to audition for a prestigious music school. The irony of the popularity of the film is that the songs that Paula learns are by Michel Sardou who was a giant of chanson in the 1990s but who is now thought old-fashioned. The film reminded audiences of the songs at a time when the French government is asking for more quotas on French radio to make sure the invasion of English language pop music is kept at bay. The chanson tradition puts great emphasis on the lyrics of songs and the main song in the film ‘Je vole’ (‘I fly’) was originally written about a teenage suicide but for the film the words were altered to refer to leaving home. The role of the music teacher is taken by Eric Elmosnino whose biggest success recently was as Serge Gainsbourg in Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) in 2010. Gainsbourg was perhaps the most notorious and most celebrated composer and performer of popular music in France in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

The other notable feature of La famille Bélier is that it is also a film about how discrimination affects hearing impaired people. It is quite a challenge to attempt to do this through the medium of comedy and perhaps predictably there has been a controversy about the casting of the film. Paula’s parents and her brother on the family farm in Normandy are all deaf mutes. Consequently she has to translate through sign language during all their encounters with officialdom, businesses and the general public. The film’s producers cast two well-known French actors without hearing impairments as the parents and a deaf actor as Paula’s brother. Campaigners for actors with hearing impairments have protested about this decision and such campaigns are not unusual across a range of films with characters in wheelchairs, characters of ‘small stature’ or other physical differences or with learning difficulties. The parents carry much of the comedy potential in the film (and this is even more noticeable through their signing actions compared to their son) and this perhaps aggravates the casting questions. Is the script the problem? Would the film be better without the comedy? If hearing impaired actors were cast would the film work in the same way? These are questions audiences might like to consider alongside an overall judgement as to what the film as it stands says about hearing impaired farmers in France.

Director Eric Lartigau does make one obvious attempt to draw the audience in to these questions when he cuts the sound of Paula’s singing voice at one point and effectively underlines the experience her parents have of her success as a singer. The other major element of the narrative is the political campaign – to become mayor of the local community – undertaken by Paula’s father. This does seem to lose in importance as a story towards the end of the film when Paula’s audition takes over. Lartigau’s two previous films, I Do (2006, a comedy with Charlotte Gainsbourg) and The Big Picture (2010, a thriller with Romain Duris) both got a UK release. Costing an estimated €11 million, La famille Bélier is a big budget film. A similar UK production might expect to work on less than half that amount. The budget difference is largely down to the higher fees paid to French film actors.

La famille Bélier was taken up for a UK release by the Canadian multinational group eOne – possibly through links to its French operation. However despite its popularity in France (where it was one of the major hits of Christmas 2014) the UK cinema release was only to a handful of cinemas and festival screenings. The DVD came out only a couple of weeks later. I was fortunate that our local community cinema was able to show the DVD to an appreciative audience only a few days after its release. We had a good discussion after the screening and various points came up. There was some concern about the casting of hearing actors in deaf roles, but also a suggestion that the comic exaggeration of signing as ‘performed’ by Karin Viard and François Damiens as the deaf parents was perhaps appropriate since as non-speakers it was otherwise difficult for them to express emotions. This seems a reasonable argument but the comedy in the film is often very broad and there is another signing character who is ‘laughed at’ partly because he has poor social skills. Many of the comic scenes depend on the potential embarrassment of parents who must have their teenage daughter translate for them with officialdom (e.g. questions about sexual health at the local surgery).

Part of the issue is connected, as one audience member pointed out, with the setting of the story in Normandy and therefore the conventions of rural comedy (e.g. comparisons with the sophistication of the Paris music school and characters from Paris ‘stuck’ in the sticks) and also the French tradition of stories about local politics and the importance of mayoral elections. These are mixed in with the ‘family comedy’. But there are at least two other generic repertoires in play. One is the youth picture involving teenage sex, school feuds etc. and the other is the ‘feelgood’ film built here around the nurturing of Paula’s talent and an inevitable dash to get to the conservatory audition.

In the end I watched this film three times, twice in community cinema settings. I enjoyed it each time, especially because of the singing and the performances, especially by Louane Emera. It is a manipulative feelgood film and I can understand the concerns of deaf actors but I think it could have attracted significant audience numbers given a proper cinema release (and some promotion). If that had happened, at least some people would have become more aware of issues within families with deaf members.

Finally, a few weeks after our screenings, one of the audience members gave me a copy of a German film called Beyond Silence which he said was very similar in its story. I’d heard suggestions that this German film existed but I’ve only just watched it and I’ll blog about it soon.

If you can find the DVD give La famille Bélier a chance. Here’s a trailer with English subs:

Background to La famille Bélier (France-Belgium 2014)

Paula (Louane Emera) rehearsing on her way to school

Paula (Louane Emera) rehearsing on her way to school

A big hit in France and now distributed around the world, La famille Bélier is notable for two reasons. First it deals with music and singing. This is topical in two ways. As in many other countries, French TV has picked up on popularity of talent shows with viewer participation. This is how Louane Emera, the lead actor in La famille Bélier, first came to the attention of French audiences. She reached the semi-final of the French version of The Voice in 2013, after being ‘saved’ by the audience, possibly because of her own tragic story of being orphaned a few months earlier. The television appearances helped her to get the role of Paula in the film and since then she has won an award at the Césars (the French equivalent of the Oscars) and in 2015 has had a No 1 single.

In the film, Paula is a teenager who discovers she has a voice almost by accident and is forcibly encouraged to learn how to use it by her school’s music teacher who wants her to audition for a prestigious music school. The irony of the popularity of the film is that the songs that Paula learns are by Michel Sardou who was a giant of chanson in the 1990s but who is now thought old-fashioned. The film reminded audiences of the songs at a time when the French government is asking for more quotas on French radio to make sure the invasion of English language pop music is kept at bay. The chanson tradition puts great emphasis on the lyrics of songs and the main song in the film ‘Je vole’ (‘I fly’) was originally written about a teenage suicide but the words were altered to refer to leaving home. The role of the music teacher is taken by Eric Elmosnino whose biggest success recently was as Serge Gainsbourg in Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) in 2010. Gainsbourg was perhaps the most notorious and most celebrated composer and performer of popular music in France in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

La famille Bélier is also a film about discrimination affecting hearing impaired people. It is quite a challenge to attempt to do this through the medium of comedy and perhaps predictably there has been a controversy about the casting of the film. Paula’s parents and her brother on the family farm in Normandy are all deaf mutes. Consequently she has to translate through sign language during all their encounters with officialdom, businesses and the general public. The film’s producers cast two well-known French actors without hearing impairments as the parents and a deaf actor as Paula’s brother. Campaigners for actors with hearing impairments have protested about this decision and such campaigns are not unusual across a range of films with characters in wheelchairs, characters of ‘small stature’ or other physical differences or with learning difficulties. The parents carry much of the comedy potential in the film (and this is even more noticeable through their signing actions compared to their son) and this perhaps aggravates the casting questions. Is the script the problem? Would the film be better without the comedy? If hearing impaired actors were cast would the film work in the same way? These are questions audiences might like to consider alongside an overall judgement as to what the film as it stands says about hearing impaired farmers in France.

Director Eric Lartigau does make one obvious attempt to draw the audience in to these questions when he cuts the sound of Paula’s singing voice at one point and effectively underlines the experience her parents have of her success as a singer. The other major element of the narrative is the political campaign – to become mayor of the local community – undertaken by Paula’s father. This does seem to lose in importance as a story towards the end of the film when Paula’s audition takes over.

Lartigau’s two previous films, I Do (2006, a comedy with Charlotte Gainsbourg) and The Big Picture (2010, a thriller with Romain Duris) both got a UK release. At an estimated €11 million, La famille Bélier is a big budget film. A similar UK production might expect to work on less than half that amount. The budget difference is largely down to the higher fees paid to French film actors.