Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tribeca ’10: Gainsbourg, Je t’Aime . . .

Serge Gainsbourg did it all: jazz, pop, rock, and a reggae version of “La Marseillaise” that was 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, Je t’Aime . . . Moi Non Plus (trailer here), which screens during the Tribeca Film Festival.

The feature directorial debut from one of France’s leading graphic novelists, Je t’Aime not surprisingly begins with a cool animated title sequence. However, Sfar has far bolder imagery in store for viewers. As the film opens, 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 Je t’Aime, 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.

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. The heart of the film though, involves his stormy marriage to British actress-singer Jane Birkin, with whom he recorded the suggestive duet “Je t’Aime moi non plus.”

Tragically, British actress Lucy Gordon committed suicide shortly after Je t’Aime wrapped. Though she will probably be remembered by more film goers for her work as reporter Jennifer Dugan in Spiderman 3, she was truly beautiful and compelling as Birkin, unquestionably delivering the film’s standout performance.

In contrast, Je t’Aime’s weakest link is a rather bland Gainsbourg. Eric Elmosnino simply does not convey the strange charisma of the musical legend. 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 Je t’Aime a sense of energy that helps the film avoid the lulls which typically plague cinematic biographies. Fresh and entertaining, Je t’Aime is a real highlight of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. It screens again today (4/27) and Friday (4/30).