Thursday, September 1, 2011

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (Music Box Films/Universal)

By Harry Forbes

Eric Elmosnino gives a mesmerizing performance as the iconic singer, songwriter, poet, actor, provocateur Serge Gainsbourg (1921-1991) in this expressionistic bio.

Despite some fanciful conceits on the part of director Joann Sfar, a noted comic book artist making his feature film debut (both writing and directing), the narrative covers, in fairly chronological fashion, Gainsbourg’s life from precocious child Lucien Ginsburg – son of loving Russian-Jewish parents – to his early days as a painter, then cabaret pianist, and finally superstar pop icon.

Famously, he was the lover of Juliette Greco (Anna Mouglalis), Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon), and Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta), and they are vividly portrayed here. Casta makes a luscious Bardot, and Gordon is especially likable as Birkin. Sadly, Gordon committed suicide after filming her role her, a great loss.

Gainbourg became increasingly outrageous as the years went by, smoking and drinking to excess, finally dying in 1991 of a heart attack.

Many of Gainsbourg’s hit songs are heard, including “Bonnie & Clyde,” “La Javanaise,” and “Je t’Aime Moi Non Plus,” some duets with Bardot and Birkin, and everything is newly performed, rather than lip-synced to old recordings. The songs and background score (by Olivier Daviaud) are beautifully interwoven into the whole.

Handsomely shot by Guillaume Schiffman, the film utilizes a life-size puppet alter ego for Gainsbourg to spur him on to new challenges, get him into trouble, or remind him of his less than movie star looks, and of his outsider status.

The figure – which we first see in the childhood scenes, as if the anti-Semitic posters then posted around occupied France had sprung to life -- exaggerates Gainsbourg’s prominent ears and nose. The alter ego device becomes a bit wearying after a while, but fortunately never gets in the way of the story which Sfar has stated was meant to have the aura of a Russian fable.

I’m sure many Americans are unfamiliar with Gainsbourg; I knew him mainly for the series of catchy hit records he penned for Petula Clark in her pre-"Downtown" French period. But he was a towering figure in his native France – praised by Mitterand as a modern Baudelaire – and this interesting film, with its very persuasive performance by Elmosnino (winner of the 2011 Cesar Award), paints a vivid picture of his life and times, especially in the swinging Sixties.
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