GAINSBOURG. Starring Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon and Laetitia Casta. Directed by Joann Sfar. Rated MA 15+ (Mature themes, sex scenes, nudity and coarse language). 117 minutes.
20th century music aficionados will be familiar with the work of Serge Gainsbourg, both music and lyrics. Film fans will remember that he was married to Jane Birkin and appeared in a number of films with her and is the father of actress, Charlotte Gainsbourg. Those with a memory for controversies and scandals will remember his record of ‘Je T’Aime’, which was considered too explicit in lyric, sentiment and breathing, when it first appeared.
This is a biopic but moves away from the standard storytelling although, despite some flashbacks, does have a linear plotline. But, realism is not of the essence. The writer-director, long a fan of Gainsbourg, his music and his paintings declares that he prefers the Gainsbourg lies rather than the Gainsbourg truths. Eric Elmosino seems a perfect incarnation of Gainsbourg, in odd looks, in manner and in singing the Gainsbourg songs. Gainsbourg died in 1991 at age 62.
The film opens quite strikingly reminding us of the Gainsbourg Jewish background. (In fact he was born Lucian Ginsberg.) It is occupied Paris and the little Lucian lines up to be the first to receive and pin on his yellow star. On his way home, a billboard image comes alive as a monstrous anti-Semitic creature who chases the young boy. This visual device becomes more imaginative as the film progresses, the writer creating a papier mache giant creature who accompanies Lucien and then Serge, something of his alter ego. This creature (in the subtitles referred to as his ‘mug’, his strange face and fool persona) continually reappears, a device that enables the film to have what might normally be an interior dialogue, up there verbally and visually. In this way, the audience grasps and emotionally responds to different crises, the different decisions, the mistakes, the successes.
Ginsberg grows up to be a short but gangly-awkward young man. He hates the piano despite his father’s domineering insistence. He prefers art school, where he is somewhat precocious. But, as a young adult, he realises that he has a talent for music, for melodies, and for recitative lyrics that are poetically challenging as well as expressions of the ordinariness and, sometimes, the ugliness of life. His heritage is, in fact, hundreds of songs.
While he does have a kind of Gallic, raffish charm, sometimes with moments of charismatic personality, it is not always easy to see why women fall for him. And they do. He dances with Juliette Greco. Brigitte Bardot was besotted with him (and Laetitia Castel captures her mood and sexiness very vividly). Jane Birkin was attracted, pursued him, married him and stayed with him as long as she could. Lucy Gordon plays Jane Birkin well, but she looks too strong and healthy for the waif-like figure that Jane Birkin was (and still is).
What we have is a life story (with its truths, exaggerations, imaginations, and falsehoods). We have a portrait with plenty of warts – Gainsbourg can be a fickle lover, a fickle friend, a self-publicist with a high quotient of narcissistic nonchalance. We have the evocation of the Parisian music world, with the touch of the bohemian, of the 1950s to the 1980s. And we have an interesting device in the conception of the ‘mug’ in making a film communicate an inner life as well as the outer events and encounters.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Released: 4 November 2010.