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France 2010
Directed by
Joann Sfar
121 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
3.5 stars


Synopsis: French singer Serge Gainsbourg (played as a child by Kasey Mottet-Klein, as an adult by Eric Elmosnino) is the son of Russian Jewish parents. He grows up in Nazi-occupied Paris in the 40s and goes on to become a thundering success in the French music scene. He battles his alter ego which is always ready to spoil his own happiness, he beds some of France’s most sexy women, he overindulges in all forms of self-destructive behaviour, and becomes one of France’s best known singer-songwriters in many genres, ranging from 60s pop to reggae to 90s electronica.

I remember the scandalous song, Je t’aime, ma non plus, released in 1969 with a backing track resembling a couple having hot steamy sex. This song probably made Gainsbourg infamous, but his life has a lot more depth and sadness than I could have imagined, according to this film created by Sfar, a well-respected comic book artist. Sfar brings a fresh vision to this unusual biopic, in that he creates a couple of life-sized alter egos for the main character, (one of whom is Ugly Face, played by Douglas Jones) a huge-nosed, long-fingered giant marionette. This character, who trails in and out of Serge’s life, always reminds Gainsbourg of the humiliation he felt as a child, especially when forced to wear the yellow star or when rejected by girls. Female rejection certainly didn’t remain a problem for the adult Gainsbourg, who had many liaisons, most notably with Brigit Bardot (Laetitia Casta) and Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon) who became his wife and with whom he fathered the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. Despite his fairly unorthodox looks, bordering on ugly, the man oozes a kind of sensual appeal.

Performances are wonderful, especially by Elmosnino, who captures a dissolute quality, combined with creativity, sensuality and adventurousness in the singer’s nature. In fact the longer title of the film is Gainsbourg, A Heroic Life, and Sfar lets us know that he sees heroism in the way that no matter how many times the man falls, he gets up, reinvents himself, grasps something new, and makes history. Equally strong are the two main women, with Casta bearing an uncanny resemblance to Bardot, and Gordon inhabiting the gawky naïve young girl who becomes a powerful figure in Serge’s life and mother of his kids.

One of the film’s more unusual qualities is the way Sfar uses a narrative approach which jumps from one moment to another in the protagonist’s life, often leaving us to fill in the gaps. In a way this could be seen both as a reflection of the multiplicity of musical styles assumed by Gainsbourg and of the erratic scope of his life. At times this seems novel, but at other times left me with no real understanding of the artist’s time line, and wondering who was who. The numerous songs written by Gainsbourg are well integrated into the film, most not original versions but recorded afresh for the film.

French cinema-goers will probably get more out of this film as Gainsbourg has an iconic standing in France that he does not have in English-speaking countries. When Gainsbourg died in 1991 President Mitterrand declared that he “elevated song to the level of art”. Whether you agree or not, one can’t help be fascinated by this well crafted and novel look into the life of a fearless artist, who was programmed to grasp life and live it to the full until he self-destructed.




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