Given that Gainsbourg’s director Joann Sfar is first and foremost a comicbook creator, it was always the case that his first film was going to be an exceptionally visual one. Gainsbourg is indeed an intensely visual film, but this is not to say that it is a film that one watches for the brilliant direction or the cinematography. Instead, it is a film that is all about ‘the look’.
We first encounter the young Serge Gainsbourg (then Lucien Ginsburg) in Vichy-era Paris. Son of a Jewish piano-player, Ginsburg becomes aware of the meaning of his Jewish heritage as he walks through streets filled with bomb damage and the drunken shouts of right-wing militias. As he skips along joyously singing La Marseillaise, Ginsburg passes a poster featuring an anti-semitic caricature and the threatening message ‘the Jew in France’. As demonstrated by the cover of L’Argent (the recent ‘masters of cinema’ release of Marcel L’Herbier’s 1928 adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel), the Jew of French right-wing myth was not merely a creature of high-finance and sharp business practices, he was also a sensualist. A seducer… A dark and twisted parody of the Frenchman’s vision of himself…
Choosing not only to accept his Jewish heritage but to actually embrace its sinister connotations, the young Ginsburg creates a fictional alter-ego called Professeur Flippus. Flippus is not simply Gainsbourg’s ‘bad side’; he is Gainsbourg’s inner spirit. His real desires and dreams… The desires and dreams that Gainsbourg realises he probably should not allow to see the day. Flippus is Gainsbourg’s friend. His companion… His spirit guide…
Passing through art school but realising that he must sacrifice his desire to paint if he is to ever gain true musical mastery, Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino) gradually gains a toe hold on the Parisian music scene by playing in gay cabarets and offering his songs to the right singers. Moving from contact to contact, and girlfriend to girlfriend, Gainsbourg grows in talent but also in appetite. By the time he has dumped Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) on the grounds that he can probably do better, the gap between the fiction of Professor Flippus (Doug Jones) and the reality of Gainsbourg is almost invisible.
Gainsbourg becomes the clever, rich, seductive Jew who lives on in the darker quarters of the French subconscious. The fact that Gainsbourg was so obviously a Jew and yet was beloved by the French people parallels his own relationship with being French. A relationship that forms a neat arc from his singing La Marseillaise as a child without understanding that it had been co-opted by anti-semitic nationalists to the reggae version of the song he recorded towards the end of his life.
Gainsbourg is, first and foremost, a simple film. Despite ostensibly resembling a biopic, the film really has little interest in looking behind Gainsbourg’s carefully constructed persona and gaining purchase on the person that lurks beneath. We see Gainsbourg slide into the world of cabaret, we see him slide into actresses, and we see him slide into ill-health and isolation but none of this sliding is ever justified, and what darkness the film contains is merely fleeting so as to not spoil the elegant cut of the film’s fairy tale cloak.
Rather than a traditional biopic, Gainsbourg functions more as a sort of quasi-biographical re-visitation of Gainsbourg’s music, gently augmented by lashings of Amélie-style whimsy, some neat set design, and just enough fantastical imagery to maintain a veneer of metaphorical engagement. It is not that Gainsbourg is a stupid film or necessarily a bad film, but it does feel terribly slight. Like tasty but watery soup, it lacks heft and it will leave you feeling hungry for something a bit more substantial half an hour later.
Aside from Christian Marti’s luscious production design and Sfar’s decidedly bande dessinée visual flair, the primary sources of pleasure in this film are the performances. Eschewing mere imitation, Elmosnino presents us a Gainsbourg who falls into and then out of affectation. The earnest child gives way to a sleek, finger-twiddling dandy before Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon) creates the nicotine-stained human pub floor persona that Gainsbourg took on in his later years. Never the tortured artist, Elmosnino’s Gainsbourg is all front and no bottom. A chancer, a striver, an elegant and brilliant crook…
Also impressive is Sara Forestier’s brief turn as the gamine France Gall (the Eurovision winner who famously sang a song about blow jobs lollypops) that perfectly captures that blend of Lolita sensuality and adolescent awkwardness that Britney once strove for but never quite managed to achieve. Another nice moment is the bit when Gainsbourg and Birkin hand in their recording of Je T’aime (Moi Non Plus) to a producer who salivates lubriciously around his enormous cigar in appreciation. A producer played by the late great Claude Chabrol. Given that Gainsbourg is a lightweight musical that deals in a form of music I don’t particularly enjoy, in a whimsical style that I find irritating at the best of times, I should really hate this film. And yet I do not. It is a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.
Optimum’s DVD release features a number of interviews with both the director and the star. Unfortunately, as these interviews were made as a part of the film’s self-promotion, they contain few telling details or interesting insights beyond the fact that everybody got on really well on set, and that Sfar is a really good director despite his relative lack of experience. Perhaps I have been spoiled by all of those Criterion and ‘masters of cinema’ releases, but the more I see of these types of DVD extras the more I question their utility. Still… at least Optimum made an effort.