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STUDIO Music Box Films
RUNNING TIME 122 minutes
• Joann Sfar – Drawings (a documentary by Mathieu Amalric)
• Original Storyboards and Character Sketches
• The Making of Gainsbourg
• Theatrical Trailer
The most beautifully weird biopic you’ll see this year.
Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Sara Forestier, Joann Sfar
Taking the best from La Vie En Rose and Amélie, renowned comic book artist Joann Sfar’s Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is a completely original take on one of France’s greatest mavericks, the illustrious and infamous Jewish singer-songwriter, Serge Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino). Born Lucien Ginsburg to Russian-Jewish parents, Sfar follows him from his precocious childhood in Nazi-occupied Paris, to his beginnings as small time jazz musician and finally pop superstar. Along the way he romances many of the era’s most beautiful women, including Juliette Greco (Anna Mouglalis), Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) and Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon). Employing a witty surrealistic style and a soundtrack that includes many of the musician’s greatest hits, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is a quintessential time capsule to 1960’s Paris.
There are certain films that require a bit of homework before they can be enjoyed. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is one of those films. It has an inescapable Frenchness, requiring that you have some vague idea of what the French political climate was like from 1940 to 1980. It also requires that you know how important the French national anthem is to the French people. It also requires that you know who Serge Gainsbourg was; something not many Americans know.
If you’re unfamiliar with Mr. Gainsbourg, he was a French singer/musician/songwriter/painter. The son of Russian Jewish Immigrants, he was born Lucien Ginsburg in 1928 and died in 1991. He was immensely famous, and one of the most prolific artists of his era. He recorded a ton of albums, painted, drew, made films, wrote a novel, and wrote many songs for other singers.
Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is a strange biopic that, oddly enough, requires that you do some homework before pushing PLAY. This isn’t like Ray or Walk The Line, which can be enjoyed without knowing anything about Ray Charles or Johnny Cash. Gainsbourg is a beast of an entirely different sort.
French artist Joann Sfar wrote and directed this adaptation of his own graphic novel (also titled Gainsbourg). Sfar is a visual mastermind, crafting beautiful, striking, and occasionally disturbing images. Unlike the monochromatic cover on the DVD, the film pops with bold colors and vivid lighting. Every shot is rich with atmosphere and texture. Sfar’s unique art style has not only survived the transition to the screen, it has flourished.
The fantasy sequences are reminiscent of Park Chan-wook’s films. Remember the brief sequence from Oldboy where we see a giant ant riding the subway, or the scenes from Thirst where the sopping wet guilt-ghost appears? These strange manifestations occur many times in Gainsbourg, mostly in the form of Serge Gainsbourg’s “Mug”. This is an odd translation, because in French, the character is called “La Gueule”, which is a slang term for one’s face. There’s no direct translation, so the English subtitles refer to it as Gainsbourg’s mug.
The role of La Gueule is a bit vague, but a key role since he shows up so often. The character is initially a manifestation of Gainsbourg’s Jewishness, based on the appearance of a four-armed, four-legged Anti-Semitic propaganda poster. I use the word Jewishness, because for our main character it is more than just his religion. It’s a state of being, a physical appearance that he must occasionally conceal. The film opens in Nazi-occupied France, where a schoolmaster warns him: “The Germans are coming. Your mug will give you away.”
Soon after, La Gueule evolves into something much more complicated. It’s a grotesque amalgam of his Jewishness, self-hatred, perceived ugliness, handsomeness, artistic drive, stage persona, booze, nicotine, and the devil on his shoulder. It is the way Gainsbourg internalizes all of these things that create La Guele. With luminous eyes, ears like dinner plates, and elongated nose, it is a caricature brought vividly to life. This “mug” is the single most confusing, unique, and fascinating element of the film.
La Gueule is played brilliantly by Doug Jones, the actor everybody loves to throw into monster suits. He played Abe Sabien in the Hellboy films, and plays The Fawn and the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth. Look at the guy’s IMDb page, he’s been in more monster roles than Lon fuckin’ Chaney. It’s easy to see why everyone hires him to act under heavy makeup, because the way he physically inhabits each role is just shockingly real. The prosthetics he wears in Gainsbourg render him blind, yet he flits and dances around with surprising agility. He wears enormous finger extensions, but can still twirl his fingers and light his appropriately oversized cigarettes with ease. It’s awe-inspiring, especially when he plays a piano duet with the young Lucien Ginsburg, or madly prances around whilst fully engulfed in flames.
Speaking of brilliant performances, Eric Elmosnino’s performance as the titular character is something really special. It’s beyond mere imitation, he truly becomes Serge Gainsbourg. There’s no voice fakery when he sings, that’s really him. It’s a bold, arresting performance that left me gobsmacked. It also doesn’t hurt that the resemblance between Elmosnino and his real-life counterpart is uncanny. No prosthetics required.
The only real problem with the film is that it lacks narrative cohesion. There’s hardly any connective tissue between the events shown. The film transitions on a dime, not giving us the courtesy of telling us what year we’re seeing. It’s hard to call it a true biopic, since the story feels so disjointed. This is particularly confusing given that Gainsbourg had several marriages and divorces, and the film skips all the details. On several occasions, he just shows up with a different woman in tow. For a biopic, this makes little sense. It never gives us a distinct chronology.
But Sfar never really set out to do that in the first place. It’s not like the film fails to accomplish an intended goal. It’s a challenging, beautiful film. The only real issue is if you don’t have any prior knowledge of Serge Gainsbourg’s life and career, you might just check out by the second act. But if you do a bit of homework, there are riches to be found in Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life.
This is a two-disc set, with excellent presentation and some satisfying extras. Video quality is good for standard definition. The highly saturated colors are represented faithfully, but reds appear slightly pixellated, which is a common issue for standard def transfers. You should shell out the extra cash for HD on this one, though. The only audio track is the original French 5.1 Surround track, and it’s very crisp. The music is obviously the focus, but dialogue sounds great as well.
The special features don’t go as deeply into the film as I would have wanted, but they’re all worth a look. Joann Sfar’s hand-drawn storyboards are a great inclusion. The most substantial feature is a documentary about Sfar, and it’s pretty cool stuff. The “Making Of” featurette is a bit weak, but still worth watching.
A documentary about Serge Gainsbourg’s life would have provided some relevant context for the film, but alas, there is none. I really wanted a commentary from Doug Jones, but again, no such luck.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars