Alter-egos, animations and a bevy of beautiful women, Gainsbourg has it all, almost, writes Mike Catto
The recent French biopics of Edith Piaf (La Vie En Rose) and Coco Avant Chanel were fairly conventional and laudatory in style and content. Not so with Joann Sfar’s take on the crazed life of Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991). Sfar's film, Gainsbourg: Vie Heroique, is every bit as surreal as the unconventional, chain smoking Gainsbourg himself.
Sfar made his name as a graphic artist in his native France – a country that considers the graphic novel and comic strip to be as intellectually sound as the novel or the symphony – and he employs drawn animation, puppetry and prosthetics in Gainsbourg to offer a singular take both on the titular subject and on the notion of the biopic itself.
Sfar is proud to tell lies about Gainsbourg (all biopics do) because the man himself did the same, creating alter egos as he went, changing from the precocious jewish boy Lucien Ginsburg in Nazi occupied Paris to the poet/singer/composer/musical rebel Serge Gainsbourg, aka Professor Filipus and Cabbage Head Man.
The alter ego who appears most in Sfar's film is La Gueule/Ugly Mug, a serpent thin figure with a huge puppet head that extends and parodies Gainsbourg’s prominent nose, heavy lidded eyes and massive bat ears. Ugly Mug is played (or should that be danced?) by Doug Jones - the athletic actor who also starred in Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy films - and is voiced by Eric Elmosnino, who doesn’t so much play Gainsbourg as inhabit the character.
Elmosnino is extraordinarily good in a role that demands that he acts – and sings – a character from teenage imp to raddled, old-before-his-time drunk. Like Gainsbourg, whom he closely resembles, Elmosnino has that battered look that surpasses conventional handsomeness in many French actors. And the omnipresent Gitane cigarette in mouth helps too.
Yes, Serge Gainsbourg may have been an ugly mug, and in truth a lot of what he wrote was kitsch in the extreme, but he attracted one helluva lot of famous and beautiful women. These included Juliette Greco, Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin, to name but a few, who are impersonated more or less successfully (if somewhat two dimensionally) in this biopic.
Gainsbourg’s own musical career covered everything from darkly humorous street chansons through to cheesy ye-ye and reggae - not forgetting the infamous 'Je t’aime...moi non plus' - and Sfar fits it all in. The problem is that the director plays fast and loose with chronology. As a result we seem to whizz from the early 1950s to mid 60s through events and snatches of song that lack roots for a non-Gallic audience.
Indeed, a casual knowledge of popular French musical culture, from Boris Vian to George Brassens, might help the cinema-goer. Alas, like Gainsbourg’s own sad final years, the film eventually goes on a bit too long. But like that other great big-nosed Gallic hero Cyrano De Bergerac, it will perhaps be remembered for its panache.
Gainsbourg runs in the QFT from July 30 to August 12.