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Friday, 23 September 2011

Gainsbourg (2010)

I really had no preconceptions about this biopic of the multi-talented French musician-artist-writer-singer Serge Gainsbourg and like most 'foreigners' I was really only familiar with his scandalous "Je t'Aime" duet with Jane Birkin.  However, after sampling a selection of his other songs during the course of this movie, I am not surprised that his musical style did not translate well outside France. and I did not emerge a converted fan.  However, I was quite taken with the film itself, especially for the first half, before it seemed to peter out.  Much like Gainsbourg's career I suspect.

A first feature by writer-director Joann Sfar's from his own graphic novel, it strives to give the viewer a shortcut into the mind of a man with something to prove, without giving us much idea of the timeline or much understanding of any real accomplishments.  It starts in wartime Paris when young Lucien (as he was then called) and his Russian-immigrant parents manage to survive relatively unscathed, despite the anti-Jewish laws in force. The child actor Kacey Mottet Klein does a fine job of portraying the young boy as a precocious, yet charming troublemaker.  He is sexually aware for his age and brags to his schoolmates of greater expertise than was probably the case.  He has an alter-ego cum imaginary friend to protect him, called La Gueule (the mug) a larger than life Jewish caricature with an oversized semitic nose and huge ears, an externalisation of his own concerns about his appearance.  This shadow accompanies him throughout his life, urging him on to greater and greater excesses and is an imaginative externalisation of his own conflicted mind.  Parenthetically, La Gueule is played by Doug Jones, who has given us a fine line in fantastic creatures in films like "Hellboy" and "Pan's Labyrinth".

The adult Lucien-now-Serge is played by Eric Elmosnino who is appropriately homely in appearance, but who does not let his looks stop his ambitions as a lady's man.  Unfortunately he does not project much personality and I found his portrayal less sympathetic than young Master Klein's. I rapidly lost interest in his affairs with Juliette Greco (Anna Mouglalis), Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta -- far too overblown), and Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon, rather better looking than Birkin and an unfortunate young suicide during the film's editing).  The man with something to prove managed to charm a number of women, but we have little insight as to why he pursued so self-destructive a course with his smoking, drinking, and womanising and even less insight into what talents he may have squandered along the way.

Sfar's film starts off like a house on fire, enchanting the viewer with his fanciful presentation, but he loses his way half way through and the movie tails off, losing our attention and interest as well. Had he been able to maintain the style of his novel throughout, his subject might have been far better served.  As it is, we are left with a not too flattering portrait of an apparently not too nice man.
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