‘Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life’ recently screened at the Music Box Theater’s Chicago French Film Festival, and should have a regular theatrical run here quite soon.
I remember how much of an upset Marion Cotillard’s best actress Oscar was considered to be at the time, in 2008. My disadvantage was seeing the film after the awards ceremony; after watching ‘La Vie en Rose,’ I was baffled that anyone had even considered the contest close. God bless Cate Blanchett, Julie Christie, Laura Linney and Ellen Page, but Cotillard’s performance was, is, and will be, one of the finest biographical portrayals in film history. Even those who despised the movie had to begrudgingly surrender to her performance.
I think I’ve just seen another one of those transformative, astonishing performances, by another actor who has been slaving on the fringes over twenty years or so. It’s a French actor named Eric Elmosnino, and his portrayal of Serge Gainsbourg, in another flawed but fascinating film, Joann Sfar’s Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (Gainsbourg: La Vie Héroïque) (France, 2010), will floor you – not because you’re constantly aware of How Hard That Actor’s Working (*cough*Meryl Streep*cough*), but because of how quickly you’ll relinquish the idea that you’re watching an actor at all.
What’s even more amazing is that he’s given this performance in a film that is so heavily stylized by its director. Joann Sfar (a male, by the way, despite the name form) is a widely-known comic/graphic novel artist in France and Belgium. He follows in the footsteps of artists like Marc Caro (who collaborated with Jean-Pierre Jeunet on ‘Delicatessen’ and ‘City Of Lost Children’) and Frank Miller (‘Sin City’ and ‘The Spirit,’ with varying degrees of success) in not only incorporating a richly unique personal style towards the realistic aspects of the visual narrative, but actually including animation, and, in this case, puppetry, in the live action itself.
Gainsbourg himself deserves a little overview for the uninitiated. Born in Paris in 1928 to Russian-Jewish parents, he was an early-teenager during the Nazi / Vichy-enabled occupation of France. The family survived, but moved around a lot. Trained as a painter, he was also a proficient piano player, and supplemented his art-student income as a musician in piano bars. He married twice, once in the fifties, once in the early sixties – much of this is passed over in the film, except for the fleeting presence of two children by his second wife. A struggling songwriter, he started finding success with pop singers like France Gall (derisively portrayed here by Sara Forestier – her feigned disbelief that her hit song ‘Lollipops (Les Sucettes)’ could possibly be about oral sex didn’t prevent her from using Gainsbourg as a writer and producer for a few more years), Juliette Greco (a brief, but killer, cameo here by Anna Mouglalis) and Brigitte Bardot (a convincing turn by former model Laeticia Casta). By now, he had become a music-industry-notable writer and producer known for his lurid sense of the sublime (both high-and-low-art aspects of that term), but he didn’t truly step out as a performing artist until his duets with Bardot and his subsequent partner, British model and actress Jane Birkin.
Even as a young art student, women were attracted to his fatalistic detachment and nonchalance, and couldn’t resist sympathizing with his self-deprecation about his looks – by any modern standard, he was not a conventionally attractive man. But by the mid-sixties, he was nearly as influential a pop culture figure in France as Andy Warhol or Phil Spector were here. Even today, Gainsbourg is worshipped for many of the same reasons others find him insufferable – the mumbling sprechstimme, the chain-smoking, the five-o’clock shadow, the lyrical Brel-Baudelairean aspirations (or pretensions, if you prefer). What Kind Of Man Reads Playboy? Serge Gainsbourg, the man who told Whitney Houston, on live French television, in english, that he wanted to f*** her.
The teenaged Serge, née Lucien Ginsburg, is portrayed by Kasey Mottet Klein, who does a pretty good job of expressing Gainsbourg’s hatred of the occupying Germans, his contempt for the French authorities enabling it, and the surprisingly malleable aspects of propaganda and mass culture. But Sfar, through his screenplay and direction, credibly guides Klein through Gainsbourg’s early attitudes towards sex and aesthetics as well. What might have come off as, at best, not believable, and, at worst, creepy, manifests itself quite nicely – the young Gainsbourg is anxious to engage in a grown-up existence, but there’s no sense of sniggering novelty or false naiveté. The friendship he strikes up with a voluptuous artists’ model (Ophélia Kolb) and his chance meeting with Fréhel, a famous (and famously alcoholic) music-hall singer (Yolande Moreau), are actually very touching and believable episodes, revealing the Ginsburg boy to be genuinely worldly-wise beyond his years.
One of Sfar’s admirable conceits here is the anthropomorphic transformation of a grotesquely-tentacled image of a Jewish monster, taken from a Nazi propaganda poster, into an imaginary companion for the young Lucien. As Lucien grows into Serge, the companion transforms into a tall, sleek, long-fingered man-about-town, with an enormous beak-like nose and huge ears (Gainsbourg’s own worst manifestation of himself). This becomes Gainsbourg’s devil-self, and mirrors a character Gainsbourg himself later referred to (but not in the film) as ‘Gainsbarre’ in later songs. The childhood Jewish poster monster seems a bit much to accept early on, but Sfar’s conception of the Gainsbarre figure is quite wonderful, and is admirably performed by Doug Jones, who is also known for similar mimetic-heavy work in ‘Hellboy,’ ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and ‘Doom.’
But it’s not just specific conceptual conceits that Sfar succeeds at; the entire film is well-designed, efficiently shot, and narratively solid. He shares Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s talent and eye for design and spacing within the camera’s frame – it’s a consistently beautiful film, even in its most louche aspects. There are a few narrative caveats, however – Gainsbourg’s interactions with Jane Birkin are curiously fragmented here, and not genuinely representative of the enormous influence she, no doubt, had on his life and career. Lucy Gordon’s engaging work is, unfortunately, given short shrift; even sadder knowing that Ms. Gordon committed suicide not long after her work here (for reasons completely unconnected with the film). And Sfar’s film suffers from the typical dilemma of biographical films – it feels fifteen minutes too long, but what do you exclude to make it shorter?
‘Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life’ screened as part of the Chicago French Film Festival at the Music Box Theater, and I suspect, like the terrific ‘Point Blank,’ it presupposes a regular theatrical run in the very near future. (If the same thing happens to the unfortunate ‘Love Crime (Crime d’Amour),’ however, its showings are safely ignored; what a nasty and irresponsible little sub-Cinemax piece of shit…). It has all the crowd pleasing elements one could wish for in a biopic – an intelligent and iconoclastic lead figure, eyebrow-raising cameos from some real pros, and the real sense that what you’re watching was genuinely transformative to world history and culture. Eric Elmosnino’s Gainsbourg may be the only major role he’s given (let’s hope not!) – the reasons he’s perfect for Gainsbourg may be the reasons he’ll never be viewed as a bankable lead for other projects. But he’s taken the opportunity and hit it out of the park. He’s obviously prodigiously talented, and he brings real commitment, intelligence and physical versatility to the role. It’s unmissable.
I’ll certainly alert you to when the film begins its regular run; hopefully soon. The vagaries of distribution sometimes wreak havoc in the availability of masterful performances (do you like Tilda Swinton? Look up a little film called ‘Julia,’ and prepare to be astonished. Never knew it was in theaters? Oh, I know…), but I’d bet money that this one will be around just in time to provide Oscar-bait, and lots of Academy members will be biting.