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Review: ‘Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life’

Cartoonist Creates Stylized Biopic for Famed French Singer

Laetitia Casta is Brigitte Bardot and Eric Elmosnino is Serge Gainsbourg in

Credit: Music Box Films

Above: Laetitia Casta is Brigitte Bardot and Eric Elmosnino is Serge Gainsbourg in "Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life."

If the thought of watching a biopic puts you to sleep, think again. "Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life" (opening November 18 at Landmark's Ken Cinema) gives the stylish singer a fittingly stylized biography.

In the press materials, director Joann Sfar states: "Certain artists choose their masters in the same discipline they have chosen. Not me. My master has always been Gainsbourg. And since I didn’t want to offend him by helplessly attempting to become a singer, I became a cartoonist."

A cartoonist who created a graphic novel about Gainsbourg's life and who has now adapted it to the screen. The result is a film that's as playful as its subject matter although not nearly as provocative or complex.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Joann Sfar

Joann Sfar's graphic novel about Gainsbourg that was the basis for the film.

Serge Gainsbourg was born Lucien Ginsburg to Russian-Jewish parents. The film opens with him as a child and with an iconic image of him with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, even though he's just a child. The image immediately alerts us to the playfulness of the film and the way Sfar wants to depict myth rather than the real person. Although in the case of Gainsbourg the two are so intricately intertwined that it's sometimes hard to separate the two, which is why Sfar's approach work well.

The film begins with Gainsbourg's childhood in Nazi-occupied Paris, and then follows him as a small time jazz musician who eventually reaches pop superstardom. Gainsbourg (played first by Kacey Mottet Klein and then as an adult by Eric Elmosnino) also takes time to romance some of the most beautiful woman of the 60s, like singer Juliette Gréco (Anna Mouglalis), and actresses Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) and Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon). Sfar shows how Gainsbourg's life informed his art and how he challenged expectations. One of the unusual aspects of Sfar's approach is to use a giant puppet alter-ego that follows Gainsbourg around. The result is a somewhat surreal portrait filled with Gainsbourg music.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Music Box Films

Lucy Gordon is Jane Birkin and Eric Elmosnino is Serge Gainsbourg in "Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life."

Using "Heroic" in the title may be misleading. It may make people think that Sfar wants to present Gainsbourg as a "Hero." And that may be true but not in the traditional sense of a hero but rather in a more mythic sense of someone larger than life.

In his director's statement for the film, Sfar says his film "aspires to recount a modern myth because the figure of Gainsbourg is radically modern. No book or movie has ever delved into his heroic qualities. There is no one more Christ-like, nor Jewish nor Russian than Gainsbourg. I obviously know Gainsbourg’s 'real life' like the back of my hand, but I did not want to make a 'realistic' or 'documentary-like' film. I wanted to create something more like a Russian fable, a modern legend. Those who have read my comic books, 'The Rabbi’s Cat,' 'Pascin' or 'Klezmer,' will find all of my usual obsessions in my Gainsbourg: love as a remedy to everything, the tragedy and absurdity of Slavic poets, omnipresent irony and supernatural creatures straight out of a Chagall painting. Serge Gainsbourg created a character for himself. I don’t want to go around delving into his personal life to discover who he really was. I couldn’t care less about the truth. I love Gainsbourg too much to bring him back to the realms of reality."

So the film conveys an image of Gainsbourg that lives up to the pop image we hold of him. He is romantic, witty, stylish, troubled, provocative, playful, and just a bit larger than life. Yet despite the lack of what you might call gritty realism, Sfar's clever portrait actually provides an insightful glimpse into Gainsbourg. But Sfar's reverence for the French singer keeps Gainsbourg up on a pedestal. The film, unlike Gainsbourg, never really pushes the creative envelope. Sfar wants his film and Gainsbourg to be liked and appreciated. Gainsbourg was more willing to provoke his audience and risk their disapproval.

Check out the videos of his songs he did with his daughter Charlotte Gainsbourg that made some people uncomfortable.

Technically, Sfar delivers a beautiful package. The film looks gorgeous. He is not an experienced filmmaker but he has a good visual eye, as in his lovely sequence introducing Bardot. His film is enlivened by animated sequences and by the large puppet alter ego and occasional moment of surrealism (like a talking cat). The film is engaging and entertaining. It's also nice to hear Gainsbourg's music showcased.

"Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life" (in French with English subtitles) is a splendid introduction to Gainsbourg.

Companion viewing: "Joann Sfar Draws From Memory," "Slogan," "Waltz with Bashir"

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