Wednesday, March 14, 2012

77. GAINSBOURG: A HEROIC LIFE (GAINSBOURG, VIE HÉROIQUE, 2010)

The directorial debut of French comics artist Joann Sfar adapts his own graphic novel about the life of singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg. I've not read the graphic novel but the film -- despite the blessings of a jaw-droppingly picture-perfect cast -- is unhappily elliptic and ignores the role that any drug stronger than nicotine played in the artist's downfall and death at the age of 62.

The early part of the film focusing on the imaginative childhood of young Lucien Ginsberg (Kacey Mottet Klein), who is drawn to the seedy and licentious sides of life against a backdrop of occupied France and his own Jewish self-consciousness and self-loathing, is rich enough to have sustained an entire movie. It's the sort of macabre enchantment that Tim Burton's work can only aspire to be, made all the more marvelous by the participation of Doug Jones (Guillermo del Toro's monster man of choice), who plays an almost Nosferatu-like animatronic exaggeration of Gainsbourg's initial adult image, an elegant combination of imaginary friend and badge of shame. When the film transitions to Ginsberg's adult life as Gainsbourg (Éric Elmosnino), it begins pedalling too fast to contain too vast a story, and it ultimately fails to present a coherent biography by failing to attend this life's great turning points (children are born in one scene and six years old in the next), by flinching from its protagonist's adult weaknesses and psychology, and by almost completely overlooking his defining masterpiece, the album L'HISTOIRE DE MELODY NELSON. The film also fails to acknowledge Gainsbourg's career as a screen actor. The later scenes feel so disjointed it's impossible to see how they connect without some prior schooling in the subject on the viewer's part, and it's also here where Elmosnino's performance begins to fray. Once or twice, his older Gainsbourg teeters dangerously on the edge of becoming Keith Richards.

Nevertheless, GAINSBOURG (in French with English subtitles) contains enough material of interest, especially to fans of this period of French pop culture, to make it well worth seeing and being disappointed by. I was particularly swept off my feet by the scenes of Gainsbourg writing songs with Boris Vian (Philippe Katerine) and Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta), and pitching them to Juliette Gréco (a delightfully vampiric Anna Mouglalis) and France Gall (Sarah Forestier). And Lucy Gordon is Jane Birkin herself.

Viewed on Amazon Instant Video HD.

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