French singer comes off flat
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Oct 14, 2011
A viewer who comes into "Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life" knowing nothing about Serge Gainsbourg will not come out the other side especially enlightened about the late French-Jewish singer-songwriter's life, least of all why it is heroic.
Although clearly affectionate and boldly imagined by writer-director Joann Sfar, a graphic novelist who brings the surreal sensibility of a French R. Crumb to his tale of art, anti-Semitism and lust, the film is an obscure and self-indulgent mess.
For starters, the degree to which it assumes prior knowledge is frustrating, to put it mildly. Although Gainsbourg's many relationships with famous women - including singer Juliette Greco (Anna Mouglalis) and actresses Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) and Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon) - form a large part of the story, Sfar is sometimes overly coy about identifying them, as though he was afraid of lawsuits.
Bardot is only ever identified as "Brigitte." If you don't already know about her famous affair with Gainsbourg - and the scandal surrounding their collaboration on the nearly orgasmic pop song "Je t'aime . . . moi non plus" - or if you don't recognize the physical similarities between Bardot and the actress who plays her, you might think she's just another lover among many. The English actress Birkin, who was with Gainsbourg for more than a decade and with whom she had a child (actress Charlotte Gainsbourg), is never even identified by name.
What the heck?
I haven't even mentioned the actor who plays Gainsbourg's alter ego (Doug Jones), a man who wears a grossly caricatured, beak-nosed, jug-eared mask throughout the film, and who appears to represent the tortured Jewish soul of Gainsbourg. The musically precocious child of Russian Jews (Razvan Vasilescu and Dinara Drukarova) in Nazi-occupied Paris, Gainsbourg changed his name from Lucien Ginsburg. In adulthood, he would take heat for being unpatriotic because of his reggae version of "La Marseillaise," and make people scratch their heads over a bizarre song called "Nazi Rock."
How Gainsbourg gets from one point to the other - not to mention how a brilliant hitmaker becomes a dissolute, chain-smoking hack - would make a great story. Unfortunately, "Gainsbourg" isn't it. Sfar's movie hits the main biographical points of Gainsbourg's life, albeit in a way that's often maddeningly vague, but it offers no insight into what made its hero tick.
That's no fault of the actor who plays him. As Gainsbourg, Eric Elmosnino certainly looks the part, and he has a bizarre sex appeal that helps explain why some of the world's most beautiful women were drawn to the scrawny, pencil-necked geek. His Gainsbourg feels tantalizingly close to something true and genuine. But every time Elmosnino gets near it, Sfar gets in the way.
With better material - and a director who isn't so squeamish about his subject one minute and so self-consciously artsy the next - the actor really might have found something to sink his teeth into.
Contains obscenity, nudity, sensuality and copious smoking. In French with English subtitles.