GAINSBOURG: A HEROIC LIFE
Director: Joann Sfar
Screenwriter: Joann Sfar based on his graphic novel - Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life
Runtime: 135 mins.
Australian release date: 4 November 2010
It has often been said that charisma overshadows conventional good looks and, if that is true, then it could be applied to Serge Gainsbourg, a talented artist who was regarded as one of Europe’s most influential popular musicians of the mid-twentieth century. The director of Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, Joann Sfar, set out to show the story of, ‘a timid and self-conscious man who protects himself as best he can,’ and he succeeds in doing this in a manner which at times could be described as magic realism.
The opening credits are an homage to Gainsbourg with the use of animation depicting a chain-smoking figure moving though a montage of key elements in his life. We meet the young Jewish boy, Lucien Ginsburg (Kacey Mottet-Klein) who later changed his name to Serge Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino) in Paris, during the Nazi occupied period of the early 1940s, when he crosses paths with a group of pro-Nazi militia, singing The Marseillaise. Many years later, Gainsbourg recorded a reggae version of the national anthem when he was in Jamaica.
Gainsbourg loved women and was not afraid to woo them, or to insult them, depending on his level of sobriety. After two marriages, he had a brief, but passionate affair with Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) and then moved on to Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon) with whom he had two children. The most famous being their daughter, the actor, Charlotte Gainsbourg. The roles are very well cast and the scenes with Bardot and Birkin are riveting in the sense that they show not only Gainsbourg’s propensity for embracing hedonism, but also his alter-ego, La Gueule (the Ugly Mug) a grotesque fictional caricature that never leaves his side, watching over his every move.
The music soundtrack by Olivier Daviaud is excellent. Daviaud composed some supplementary music and injected elements from Gainsbourg’s music into the film. Elmosnino’s performance is perfectly pitched and he recreates Gainsbourg’s iconic status as the performer who embraced all forms of music ranging from jazz, through to pop, rock, reggae and electronica. Many of his songs contained lyrics with morbid and sexual twists. In 1969, he recorded the controversial, ‘Je t’aime… mai non plus’ with Birkin, using simulated sounds of female orgasm. He influenced many contemporary artists including Portishead, Placebo and Michael Stipe.
Towards the end of his career, Gainsbourg succumbed to alcohol and his continual chain-smoking, graphically depicted in the film, took its toll. He died of a heart attack in March, 1991. He may not have been as well-known at the time to audiences around the world, but his legacy remains. At his funeral, François Mitterrand referred to Gainsbourg as, ‘our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire… he elevated song to the level of art.’ Sfar’s film is an interesting look at a life that was full of creative ambition and of a character who had a very complex personality. It is not hard to see why Gainsbourg was so popular as he epitomized the ‘bad boy’ image that still appeals to this day.