Monday, August 29, 2011

Gainsbourg: the Icon and his Subconscious

Serge Gainsbourg did it all: jazz, pop, rock, and a reggae version of “La Marseillaise” that was initially not nearly as well received as Jimmy Hendricks’s “Star Spangled Banner.” For the singer-songwriter, it was just one more controversy in an eventful career dramatized with idiosyncratic flair in Joann Sfar’s Gainsbourg: a Heroic Life (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

As the feature directorial debut of one of France’s leading graphic novelists, Heroic not surprisingly begins with a cool animated title sequence. However, Sfar has far bolder imagery in store for viewers. As the narrative commences, Gainsbourg (then Lucien Ginsburg) arrives early to pick-up his yellow star from the collaborationist authorities. His Jewish heritage would continue to haunt Gainsbourg in the form of a giant anti-Semitic propaganda cartoon come to life, as if it were a Macy’s Thanksgiving balloon, dogging the boy throughout his formative years. Yet, Sfar is only getting started with his fanciful twists on the old bio-pic formula.

Throughout Heroic, Gainsbourg interacts with what he calls his “mug,” his Tyler Durdenesque id, who inspires all his bad boy excesses. One could argue though, Gainsbourg does alright following his lead. After all, he would become one of the most influential figures in French music, romantically linked to some of the world’s most desired women.

Despite Sfar’s stylistic eccentricities, he still shoehorns in most of Gainsbourg’s musical highlights and notable personal scandals. We see Gainsbourg as a young man dabble in jazz piano, make his mark as a pop songwriter, and recklessly carry on with the married Brigitte Bardot (a surprisingly convincing turn from supermodel Laetitia Casta). The heart of the film though, involves his stormy marriage to British actress-singer Jane Birkin (mother to his daughter, actress Charlotte Gainsbourg), with whom he recorded the suggestive duet “Je t’Aime moi non plus.”

Tragically, British actress Lucy Gordon committed suicide shortly after Heroic wrapped. Though she will probably be remembered by more film patrons for her work as reporter Jennifer Dugan in Spiderman 3, she was truly beautiful and compelling as Birkin, unquestionably delivering one of the film’s standout performance.

In contrast, Heroic’s weakest link is the rather hard to get a handle Gainsbourg. Eric Elmosnino hints at the strange charisma of the musical legend, but the inner Gainsbourg remains a mystery, despite all the outward manifestations of his subconscious. Fortunately, there are many strong supporting performances that largely compensate, most notably Razvan Vasilescu as Gainsbourg’s traditional but nonetheless proud father.

Sfar’s surreal devices might sound distracting, but they actual give Heroic an energetic drive and witty attitude that helps the film avoid the lulls which typically plague cinematic biographies. Fresh and entertaining, Heroic is highly recommended when it opens this Wednesday (8/31) at Film Forum.