Shortly after the opening credits of Gainsbourg, as soon as the figures in posters peel themselves off walls and inflate themselves to monstrous sizes and set off to accompany the hero through his life, you realise that this is no usual biopic. Director Joann Sfar is a French cartoonist and this is his first feature film. Not that you’d know it – Gainsbourg is steeped in a boozy, smokey, Parisian hedonism – where the women are beautiful and sexy, with breathless voices and perfect skin, endless legs, paraded in the shortest of skirts or almost hidden behind the floatiest of bed sheets. And all of them lie down before Serge Gainsbourg because, no oil painting himself, he is a master seducer, with poetry, song, art and music dripping off his fingers and flowing from his lips. The smoking is so much a part of his character, I’ll be coughing for days.
The film begins with the childhood of Lucien Ginsberg (as he originally was called) in Occupied France and the anti-Semitism he witnesses and experiences in his own country is a theme through the film. But this isn’t a conventional linear biography. Rather, it is a tale of a series of muses (not to mention a trail of abandoned offspring) beginning with the precocious Lucien and a life model he is not allowed to paint. The only constants are Gainsbourg, his alter-ego (or hideous ‘Mug’) and his parents, initially disproving but soon very proud indeed, dancing around the room at just the thought of their son with Brigitte Bardot.
Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin were Gainsbourg’s two great loves and the inspiration for his greatest songs, including Je t’aime, which was composed for one and sung by the other. Laetitia Casta is perfect as Bardot – so beautiful and sensual that no wonder Gainsbourg fears that he will never be able to love again. But he is defined as a lover of beautiful women and so he falls for the vulnerable and giving Jane Birkin. Jane is played by Lucy Gordon who, shortly after completing ths film, died in Paris. That tragedy plays on the mind when you watch her wonderful performance here. But the heart and soul of this movie is embodied by Eric Elmosnino as Gainsbourg. Not always likeable, he is aware of his failings and when he falls in love, he falls hard and you can’t help but feel his pain. And genius seeps from every booze-sodden pore.
For me, the film fell off a little in the last third as Gainsbourg the person lost direction (and health). Perhaps, I would have appreciated this part more if I’d known a little more about Gainsbourg’s later life before I saw the movie. But also the problem may have been because the first two thirds were so damn good. The look and feel of the movie is as mesmerising as Elmosnino’s performance. It’s a different kind of reality – we are in Gainsbourg’s world.
I don’t think you need know much about Gainsbourg in advance to draw a great deal from the sense of cultural wallowing that you get from this film. You may even, like me, leave the theatre and instantly download a few tracks that you’d not heard for years. Gainsbourg is undoubtedly Sfar’s muse and inspiration and he’s done him proud. I do indeed know a lot more now about the man behind the music. I urge you to go and see it – your senses will thank you for it.
Note: The one trailer before was for The Social Network – the hairs on my neck danced at the sound of Creep – a great start to the movie.