Sex, songs and cigarettes

Gainsbourg (M). Director: Joann Sfar. Starring: Eric Elmosnino, Laetitia Casta, Lucy Gordon. 117 minutes

GainsbourgThe Troubled Artist — for whom self-destruction is a necessary by-product of creation — is a cultural cliché whose ubiquity risks robbing it of tragedy. Biopics about such figures are frequently mawkish affairs, that work too hard to either humanise or idolise.

Gainsbourg, about the iconoclastic 20th century French songwriter and singer Serge Gainsbourg, is neither mawkish nor celebratory. It attempts to undercut cliches and corniness by employing an endearingly idiosyncratic visual approach, and by striking a tone that is irreverant yet glum. It doesn't try to decipher the enigma, but as a result it offers little insight. This is to its detriment.

Gainsbourg is portrayed by Elmosnino as a swaggering louche, drinking and chain-smoking his way amid a murky and surreal Parisian backdrop. The film follows him from his childhood, through his most successful songwriting years in the 1960s, to his alcohol-fuelled decline in later years.

He is tailed throughout by the imaginary figure La Gueule ('The Mug' or 'Face', portrayed by renowned prosthetics-performer Doug Jones), a spindle-fingered caricature who bears Gainsbourg's physical features (nose and ears) in exaggerated proportions, and embodies and encourages his basest desires.

A gallery of women pass through the clutter of Gainsbourg's creativity, drawn by his artistic prowess and animal charm. They include the model Brigitte Bardot (Casta) with whom he has a brief but intense affair, and the English actress Jane Birkin (Gordon), who becomes for a time his wife and his greatest muse.

Each of these relationships is vividly portrayed. Each has its own tenor and tone, and each leaves a different imprint upon Gainsbourg who, though physically unattractive, is defined by sexuality. Indeed sex informs many of his song lyrics (his catalogue spans jazz, ballads, mambo, lounge, reggae and pop).

Gainsbourg is enjoyable for its music and Elmosnino's gloriously unflattering portrayal, but suffers from being long and unfocused. Comics artist turned director Sfar adapted the film from his graphic novel, and the impression is more of a collage of rough-hewn comic panels than of a well-conceived picture book.

In other words, what the film gains in visual panache it loses in narrative cogency. Characters come and go without explanation. Gainsbourg's Jewish childhood in Nazi-occupied Paris is significant, but its influence on him in later life remains unclear. We hear his songs, but gain little insight into their source.

Compared with the kind of pedestrian biopic Hollywood might have produced on this subject, Gainsbourg is, at least, an original and ambitious attempt at the genre. It is memorable, if not entirely successful. 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Inside Film and The Big Issue magazines, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail

Topic tags: Gainsbourg, Joann Sfar, Eric Elmosnino, Laetitia Casta, Lucy Gordon



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