Comic-book characters arrive on movie screens so often it sometimes seems Hollywood has nothing else to offer. But comic-book creators? Not often.
Frenchman Joann Sfar, whose “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” opened Friday at West End Cinema in Washington, is more industrious than most cartoonists. Having penned about 250 comics in 15 years, he made his big-screen debut not with an animated film, as one might expect (though he’ll soon release one, based on his popular “Little Vampire” children’s books), but by writing and directing a live-action movie about one of France’s most popular musicians, Serge Gainsbourg.
Gainsbourg died in 1991 after three decades of making hits in a variety of styles. Stateside, he’s best known for the cryptically sexy duet with Jane Birkin “Je T’Aime . . . Moi Non Plus.” The picture was a hit, winning two Cesars, France’s version of the Oscar.
Isn’t it tough to herd cameras, lights and actors after working so long with just a pen and paper? “It’s much easier,” Sfar says. “When something is wrong, you can blame the crew! You meet wonderful actresses, and you have plenty of people to bring you sandwiches.”
Sfar says that his talents helped him, “a total newbie,” connect with a skeptical crew: “Because I made drawings, they considered me a technician.” The project presented nontechnical challenges, though. Its subject, a cult hero in the United States — worshiped by hipsters such as Beck for his witty, inventive songs — is a cultural icon in France. “In every pub, you will find a drunk who is singing a Gainsbourg song,” Sfar says.
Because the French know Gainsbourg so well, the film spends little time explaining details of his career, preferring to revel in his outrageous behavior (like recording the National Anthem to an irreverent reggae beat) and romances with the women who recorded his songs (Brigitte Bardot, most famously). Although Gainsbourg cut dozens of LPs on his own, becoming ubiquitous in the 1960s and ’70s — and often testing censors with, for instance, sexual moans on pop records — the film lingers behind the scenes, watching as the famously unattractive man woos singers such as Juliette Greco under the guise of pitching songs for them to record.
Sfar had published a comic-book biography of the singer, but making a film about him required delicacy. Birkin (Gainsbourg’s longtime lover) and actress Charlotte Gainsbourg (their daughter) were willing for Sfar to make the film but didn’t want to participate, presumably because it would require revisiting his intoxicated final years, when Birkin left him. Gainsbourg spiraled out of control in the public eye and was given to TV talk-show antics such as burning a 500-franc bill and making lewd comments to fellow guests. The director says Birkin told him, “ ‘You have to do your movie, because Serge would be so happy, but don’t ask us to see [it]. We don’t want to see him on-screen.’ ”
Although she eventually backed out, Charlotte (who as a 12-year-old infamously recorded a song called “Lemon Incest” with her dad) had initially agreed to play Serge on-screen. That idea died, but “A Heroic Life” still has quirky innovation: Throughout, Gainsbourg is tailed by a puppetlike alter ego who goads him into trouble.
The devilish figure partially represents the singer’s chip-on-the-shoulder attitude toward his Jewish heritage, which dated to anti-Semitic propaganda he experienced during Germany’s occupation of France. Sfar, whose comics often draw on Jewish folk tales, sees this baggage as central to Gainsbourg’s lifelong efforts to provoke the public. Asked about provocations that didn’t make it into the film, Sfar laments omitting tales of the star’s sex life.
“I had these moments in the comic book,” he says, “but I did not dare to put them in the movie. Maybe I was wrong, because — this would be my only disappointment — the movie was a huge success in France, but it did not shock anybody.” Hardly appropriate for a singer whose audiences sometimes threatened to riot.
Sfar is proud that whatever antics reached the screen are “heavily documented; totally accurate” — sort of.
“Those may be lies, but they are from him,” he says. “I was lucky enough to attend a master class [taught by Martin] Scorsese, and he said when you adapt a book, forget the story but keep the sentences of the author. So I wrote the whole script with sentences from Serge Gainsbourg.”
Sfar wanted the audience to feel as if the singer was “drunk, telling that story in a night club,” he says. “You know, my grandfather claimed that his first sexual experience, he was 9 years old, riding his horse,” he laughs, offering further anatomically unlikely details. “Who am I to tell him, ‘Come on granddad, you’re kidding!’? I love that kind of behavior, and the whole movie is about that, about finding his voice.”
In person, Sfar — a friendly, clean-cut, married man — is often animated by his subject’s hedonism. As he talks, he absent-mindedly sketches a half-smoked cigarette on the paper in front of him. Asked whether he worries that Gainsbourg’s nonstop nicotine intake will make smoking look cool, he says, “I don’t smoke at all. The thing is, I’m kind of fed up with prohibition. It’s like, you know, I want to throw it in the face — I want my character to be heavily sexually oriented, to be a drunk. I’m fed up with being healthy.”
With that, the interview ends. But on the way out, Sfar reveals that his next live-action film will be “a comedy about slaves, in the 18th century. It’s about a French guy who has many slaves, and he feels guilty, but he will never sell them because an individual act will never change anything. It’s about left-wing people.”
Sounds like just the sort of button-pushing yarn Serge Gainsbourg would love.
“Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” opened Friday at West End Cinema, 2301 M St. NW.