Thursday, July 22, 2010

Review - Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)

Joann Sfar has given his film Gainsbourg the subtitle Vie héroïque – a heroic life – and whether or not the subject deserves such a description is a matter that's open to debate. What's more certain, however, is that Serge Gainsbourg's life was a remarkable one, and in the hands of this debutant filmmaker it has been brought to sensational life. The music biopic has been one of the most formulaic genres in recent cinema, so it's refreshing to view a film that dares to shake that formula up, and to find cinematic ways to explore both the life and work of an artist. Granted, the film still hits the standard beats – childhood, success, failures, affairs, the slow decline – but it does so with a bracing energy and some hugely imaginative directorial choices.

Taking a kind of 'greatest hits' approach to Gainsbourg's story, Sfar chooses to focus on the episodes that interest him and dispense with those that don't, giving the film a hectic pace in its early stages as it rushes from one incident to the next. Gainsbourg opens in Nazi-occupied France, introducing us to the young Lucien Ginsburg (Kacey Mottet Klein), and establishing the central character as a cheeky and imaginative figure from the start. When he is forced to don a yellow Star of David, Lucien skips down the streets before stopping to stare at a grotesque Jewish caricature on a poster, which then comes to life and begins dancing with the boy. His restless imagination is the driving force behind this early section of the film, with Sfar finding unexpected flights of fancy everywhere, from a scene in which Lucien is forced to hide from the Nazis in a Catholic school, to another in which he persuades a model to let him draw her nude.

Kacey Mottet Klein is an appealingly precocious presence as the young Ginsburg, but he's got nothing on the man who takes over when Sfar moves onto his subject's adult life. Eric Elmosnino was surely born to play this role. He is uncanny both in his physical resemblance to the singer and his representation of Gainsbourg's swaggering attitude, capturing the magnetism that made him such a prolific ladykiller while simultaneously expressing the deep insecurity that the artist felt about his looks. There's an enigmatic air to Elmosnino's performance, with a sly smile playing on his lips as a cigarette hangs from his lips, but whatever thoughts and feelings the actor keeps hidden tend to escape anyway, in the form of Sfar's most inspired invention. Throughout the film, Gainsbourg is followed by a strange, elongated figure with caricatured Semitic features protruding from his papier-mâché head – like a cross between Nosferatu and Frank Sidebottom. This is 'La Gueule' or 'Gainsbarre,' a personification of the singer's id, who is constantly whispering in his ear and leading him astray. He's a creepy and striking figure, and he is brilliantly played by Doug Jones, once again proving he is one of the most versatile and expressive physical performers around.

Sfar maintains a surreal and theatrical tone wherever possible, eschewing biopic clichés and historical reality in an attempt to create something more in tune with his subject's artistic perspective. The director has no cinematic experience and prior to Gainsbourg his reputation has been forged in the world of comic books, which is shown by his emphasis on the film's visuals. Guillaume Schiffman's gorgeous cinematography and Sfar's eye for compositions give the film a lush, vibrant feel, but the director struggles at times with his structure. Essentially a series of scenes rather than a fluid narrative, the film has gaps and hurdles that leave it feeling uneven, although a couple of key performances help to keep the film anchored. Aside from Elmosnino, Sfar has settled on some spot-on casting choices for the women in Gainsbourg's life. Laetitia Casta turns up halfway through the film for an outrageously sexy cameo as Brigitte Bardot, and Lucy Gordon, who sadly died before the film's release, is effective and affecting as Gainsbourg's long-suffering wife Jane Birkin.

It is she who has to suffer the star at his alcoholic, reckless worst, and while Sfar skims over the most unsavoury aspects of this life story – he has clearly come to praise Serge, not to bury him – the final section of the film is a drag. For all of his attempts to shake off cliché, Sfar still finds himself a prisoner of the biopic template as Gainsbourg begins his slow descent into boorish drunkenness and misanthropy. The film finally threatens to outstay its welcome in this climactic section, and Sfar's attempt to loop things back to the artist's childhood doesn't come off, but this is still a bold and distinctive work. Gainsbourg is unconventional, passionate, sensual, frustrating and occasionally inspired – for better and for worse, Joann Sfar truly has made a film infused with the spirit of its subject.

Read my interview with Joann Sfar here.