Tuesday, April 17, 2012

J'aime le film de Gainsbourg

The lover of the pop biopic has been well served in recent years. The Americans have given us solid, sturdy narratives with exceptional performances - Jaime Fox as Ray Charles and Joaquin Phoenix as The Man in Black. The Brits have produced quirky, independently-spirited impressionist oddities about outsiders and desperadoes like the gay, half-deaf, occult obsessed 1960s record producer Joe Meek in Telstar, and Polio-striken punk word smith Ian Drury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll. The French, however, have been less well served, largely because, let's face it, the French were pretty short of pop stars to begin with.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule and Serge Gainsbourg was a notable exception, as is the film that carries his name that is ostensibly about his life. In contrast to recent American efforts, first-time director Joann Sfar is scarcely interested in the emotional peaks and troughs of Gainsbourg's journey through life and much interested in capturing a sense of the outlaw spirit of the man's music. Sfar said he wanted to "avoid the burden of making a museum piece" and just have fun making a movie, an approach that would have likely found favour with the film's laconic hero.

The one time cartoonist achieves this in a number of ways, most notably through the creative use of puppets and long-limbed Guillermo Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones, who lends his unique physicality to a grossly exaggerated caricature of Gainsbourg's favoured public image - La Gueule - an elegant anarchistic lothario with an enormous nose, who time after time leads Gainsbourg astray. When Gainsbourg finds himself uncertain about whether to pursue a musical or an artistic career, La Gueule takes his guitar in hand, lights his head with a match and dances around his counterpart's studio, burning precious artworks and engulfing the entire room in flames. When the fire is extinguished, nothing of Gainsbourg's life of an artist remains.

It is not a subtle film. Characters are invariably what they seem and all details are painted in broad, colourful brush strokes. There is hardly any consideration given to narrative - once the small Jewish boy has escaped from the shadow of what he calls his Ugly Mug - another live-action puppet - the film moves rapidly from one Euro Pop musical number to the next, Gainsbourg bedding beautiful woman, one after another - Greco, Bardot, Birkin - and La Gueule inviting him to elope lest he settling down. Eric Elmosnino is exemplary in the leading role, surly, sarcastic, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth at all times.

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is the film's full title, intended as an ironic in-joke I presume. The film plays out a male fantasy about being the bad boy that at times resembles so closely a parody of a French hero, I can only assume the director is having a bit of fun by calling the film that. Gainsbourg, as depicted in the film was the kind of selfish bastard best avoided in real-life, but its good fun to indulge in two hours of his company via the medium of film. Far from perfect, but the lie is a good one. 'When the legend becomes fact, print the legend'.

Bravo! C'est tres bon!


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