***originally written 10 August 2010***
Gainsbourg the film, a biopic of Lucien Ginsberg – who became Serge Gainsbourg – is based on a graphic novel by Joann Sfar. Indeed Sfar directs this interpretation too, which is quite an achievement by itself. Clearly a fan of the man and his life’s work, Sfar’s film is warm and rich, but doesn’t gild the lily. You see the man as the suave, louche lady’s man he was. But you also see him at his most indulgent and egotistical. There is a fairness about it. This was the man. Warts and all.
But how does one capture an entire life in two hours of film? It’s a difficult thing to do, and is rarely done with satisfaction. It’s easy to get bogged down in mundanely cataloging the things that happened. We begin with Lucien as a child, portrayed wonderfully by Kacey Mottet Klein. The characteristics that will define the man are firmly in place already. Paradoxically self-conscious about his appearance (which he even manifests as gangly alter-ego Gainsberre) whilst also cocksure with the ladies. This first WW2-era section of the movie is very endearing and playful, as Lucien’s imagination quite literally comes to life around him.
Arguably more impressive however is Eric Elmosnino who takes over the job of playing him as an adult. It’s a slyly physical performance. He brings great presence to Gainsbourg, so that you can thoroughly believe that a man this idiosyncratic was also able to woo so many amazing women. He is laid back and affable, and later on, when things begin to unravel, appears brittle, vulnerable, stubbornly addicted to excess. In a year with few really memorable central performances thus far, Elmosnino impresses.
And Sfar makes Paris in the 60s look just about as fucking cool as it must have been. The people. The costumes. Everything seems remarkably, sickeningly good-looking. If for nothing else, this middle section of the film is an embarrassment of riches in this respect. Gainsbourg womanises – and what women! – and yet you still warm to him. Between Elmosnino’s portrayal and Sfar’s world for him to play in, there’s really not a whole lot to criticise.
This section of the film, roughly half of the overall length, is bookended by two of it’s strongest scenes. The first, when Lucien tentatively takes command of a primary school music lesson, is a real out-and-out delight, and genuinely one of the joys to be hold this year on the big screen. The second has Gainsbourg debuting a song for his most famous ‘other’, Brigitte Bardot, played well-enough by Laetitia Casta. Whilst he plays she dances playfully with only a white sheet to cover her modesty. It’s like a musical variation of the strategic-nude-scene in Austin Powers and many other comedy movies. Only here it plays out with simple warmth. This scene also ends with a smirk-enducing musical tease.
So it’s something of a shame that from here on the film reverts to those usual trappings of the biopic. Time speeds up, lesser events are brushed over generically – a coronary, a poorly-received reggae version of the French national anthem – and a succession of dodgy wigs are employed. It’s hard not to end up waiting for the extended epilogue to simply stop.
And overall, though Lucien/Serge is served well (after all, it’s his film), the supporting players become a revolving door of interchangable women. Chief amongst them Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin (played well by Lucy Gordon), but there are so many others that it becomes difficult to keep track or particularly care. The celebration of a shallow attitude toward the women in his life becomes, well, shallow. Right or wrong, this is, by all accounts, how the man led his life. Ginsberg/Gainsbourg’s alter ego – the aforementioned gangly Gainsberre – outlasts those formative years also, popping up arbitrarily to help or hinder the man’s pursuit of sensation. It adds colour and quirkiness to the picture, but one wonders if that isn’t solely the point. Fun and strange as these scenes are, they do tend to put you at a remove from the movie, pointedly taking you out of the action you may have previously been absorbed in.
Nevertheless there’s about two-thirds of a good film here. And I feel I have a better feeling of what the man was about than I did previously. Selling out has rarely seemed so stylish.