23 April 2013

"Comic Strip"

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life
Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)
2010, France
Joann Sfar

That Joann Sfar’s Serge Gainsbourg film was originally planned to star the famed musician’s own daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, as her father makes it difficult to imagine that, when Charlotte dropped out, anything or anyone that could have successfully taken her place. Sure, the casting of a woman in the role of an iconic, enigmatic singer/songwriter had been done (successfully) in Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan pic I’m Not There., with Cate Blanchett, but the possibility of seeing Charlotte Gainsbourg in drag as her late father, seducing and romancing an actor playing her mother, would have been as decidedly pervy and enticing as Charlotte’s own teenage duet with daddy, “Lemon Incest.” So it came as a bit of a surprise (to me, at least) that Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque), sans Charlotte, is actually quite good.

Certainly Eric Elmosnino’s channeling of Monsieur Gainsbourg, which won him the Best Actor prize at the Césars, is impressive, but a solid impersonation does not a good film make. Instead, it’s the bolder choices made by Sfar, best known as a comic artist, in his first foray as a filmmaker that elevate Vie héroïque, which he adapted from his own graphic novel, beyond your factory-line Hollywood biopic. Sfar too won the César for Best First Film. Throughout the film, Serge–whether played as an adult by Elmosnino or as the child Lucien Ginsburg by Kacey Mottet Klein (of Ursula Meier’s Home)–is accompanied by a nightmarish, computer-animated version of himself, which serves as a visually exciting and narratively clever device.

Sfar also excels at one of the film’s more difficult tasks: introducing the many famed women of Gainsbourg’s life. It’s unfortunate that the two women who get the most screen time, Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin, are the least convincing performances in the film, despite both Laetitia Casta and Lucy Gordon’s strong physical resemblances to their respective characters. However, each of the women represented in the film enter the film explosively, almost the way I would imagine would befit the introduction of a series of recognized villains in a well-known comic book or video game. Villains these women, of course, are not, but they each provide their own individual challenges to our hero.

The more inspired performances come from Yolande Moreau as Fréhel, Sara Forestier as France Gall, Mylène Jampanoï as Bambou, and especially Anna Mouglalis as Juliette Gréco. Greco’s entrance is the most astonishing: a single shot of the opening her eyes to the sound of a thunder clap, as if she were waking from a hundred-year slumber. There’s also a funny, cartoonish cameo from Claude Chabrol (in his final appearance on the silver screen) as the record producer to whom Gainsbourg brings his new version of “Je t’aime, moi non plus” with Birkin filling in on vocals for Bardot. Again, it’s all about the eyes. Vie héroïque is probably the best biopic of Serge Gainsbourg that could have been made without Charlotte, and for that, Sfar should be commended.

With: Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Doug Jones, Kacey Mottet Klein, Razvan Vasilescu, Dinara Droukarova, Anna Mouglalis, Mylène Jampanoï, Sara Forestier, Yolande Moreau, Philippe Katerine, Deborah Grall, Ophélia Kolb, Claude Chabrol, François Morel, Joann Sfar