PLOT SYNOPSIS FROM FILMMAKER MAGAZINE: Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is a live-action fantasy based on the life of über-French chansonnier and peerless provocateur Serge Gainsbourg (embodied by look-alike stage actor Eric Elmosnino), whose Russian-Jewish background and almost mythic love affairs with Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin (whose orgasmic moans made famous their 1969 duet “Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus”) he explores with eccentric charm, employing a kind of dream logic to connect different episodes from the singer’s life.
Sfar’s biggest conceit in Gainsbourg, which was released to great acclaim last year in France (it won a César for best debut feature), centers on an incident that occurs early in the film: walking through Occupied Paris, a school-age Lucien Ginsburg (who later adopted his stage name) is alarmed to see a horrifically anti-Semitic caricature and, in the shock of self-realization, sees it spring to life, a monster that morphs into eerie alter ego (played by Doug Jones of Pan’s Labyrinth), his shadow id and (occasionally misguided) conscience.
Sfar’s depiction of the iconic composer captures many facets of Gainsbourg’s persona, including the self-abuse that he seemed to parade as proudly as his smuttiest compositions, but it’s the elements of comic-book-inflected fantasy (the director enthuses equally about F.W. Murnau and Peter Jackson by way of explaining his visual technique) that differentiate the film from standard-issue music biopics.
PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE FROM ME: I first learned of this most unusual biopic a couple of years back from Doug Jones, who acts in the film as “La Gueule” — a fanciful manifestation of Serge Gainsbourg’s impish Id — and I really wanted to see it. Not because I was especially interested in the life of the infamous French songwriter and soused celebrity but mainly due to the way Dougie described it as a fantasy moving picture adaptation of a graphic novel as directed by the artist. (check out my most recent interview with Doug, along with my cohort/co-host Matt Raub, for “This Week In Horror” right here)
I am generally very receptive to biopics (and am an avid reader of biographies and autobiographies), especially the ones that color outside the lines (prime examples are my favorite biopic of all time: Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan parable I’m Not There, as well as Kevin Spacey’s take on Bobby Darrin and George Clooney’s adaptation of the bizarre Chuck Barris tell-all, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind).
It seemed like forever and day before G:AHL finally made it from France and Europe to we Stateside cinefiles. I had to miss the preview press screening of G:AHL on August 24 (only because I was working on directing a short film… such a flimsy excuse, I know!). I was disappointed to miss it as a journalist, but vowed to see it as a fan regardless. So, last night at The Landmark in L.A., I finally fulfilled my wish. G:AHL is now playing in select theaters, in a limited engagement (yada, yada — basically, see it on the big screen now, before it’s gone!).
My dear Dougie is really great in the film as the tyrannical muse of the troubled troubadour. There is something about Doug himself in real life that’s very muse-like. As Guillermo del Toro can certainly attest to, since the autuer’s chosen to work with Doug as often as possible since first meeting him when he was directing his first big American debut, Mimic. (By the by, the director’s cut of Mimic is out on Blu-ray, and I reviewed it for Horror.com) Doug has a way of bringing nightmares, dreams and figments to life. This is him below, augmented as the Serge Id.
Doug was even my muse for a day. This was last year when I undertook a massive project in which, diligently over two months, I photographed a variety of people separately but in the same location (the Korean Friendship Bell in San Pedro, CA).
It was fascinating for me to discover how each one’s personality and vibe transformed the static stone and steel structure into something different every time. The morning Doug arrived was unexpectedly rainy and quite blustery, creating climate calamities I wasn’t too thrilled about in the moment, but which stimulated some of the most arresting images in the series (water-spots on the lens, and all).
Doug is his own amazing muse, on occasion — check out the incredibly compelling self-portrait he contributed for my now-defunct “Blog I’d Like to Fuck [BILF]” on said subject, a few years back (you’ll have to scroll down, after downloading the PDF – totally worth it, promise!)
But Wait… There’s More!
In G:AHL Doug is a study in contrasts. He’s graceful and delicate as the seducer who coaxes Gainsbourg’s artistic leanings out, yet he’s brittle and forceful in the manipulation of his not-so-helpless host, nudging the primal man into giving in to his darker, destructive leanings.
First time director / longtime artist Joann Sfar did an utterly brilliant job in the attention to his casting which, as far as I’m concerned, is a huge part of any film’s creative success. Originally, he’d wanted Serge Gainsbourg’s daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, to portray the titular character in the film (ala Cate Blancett from I’m Not There — a film which incidentally also stars Charlotte Gainsbourg), but the usually fearless actress — see: Lar Von Trier’s Anti-Christ for proof — didn’t feel confident enough to fill his fictional chaussures. So Eric Elmosnino stepped in.
Next up from Sfar, we can look forward to more cinematic adaptations of his graphic novels.
Elmosnino, who also sings Serge’s songs, is the proverbial sun to which the women in his life revolve. Again, casting is key here. Gainsbourg’s most famous, most luscious lover is played beautifully and breathily by Laetitia Casta, whose face and breasts have already followed Bardot in the form of the 2000 update of the famed “Marianne de France” busts (other models for the symbol of the Republic have included actress Catherine Deneuve and singer Mireille Matthieu).
One of the few times we see the cinematic BB in clothing is during her entrance, in which she’s wearing a chocolate colored playsuit accented with low-slung hip-belt, thigh-high high-heeled leather boots, and her signature leopard-print coat. (Here’s a hint on how you can “get the look” yourself) Below are the faux Bardot, and the read deal, respectively.
One of my favorite BB scenes in the movie is where she inspires Serge to compose Comic Strip, based on Barbarella. Check out that cheeky Costa clip from G:AHL here at MeFedia, and then take a gander at the music video from back in the day.
Another fashionable femme from Serge’s eclectic lady-land was British actress Jane Birkin, played with wide-eyed, coltish come-hither allure by freckle-faced Lucy Gordon (who, tragically, committed suicide before seeing her final performance). The film’s costume designer Pascaline Chavanne takes a little liberty with Birkin’s iconic crocheted lace eyelet dress, making it a mini, but overall her look is captured in an absolutely perfect hemline time-capsule.
Another marvelous, memorable scene in the movie depicts Gainsbourg and Birkin’s first playing of the demo of their sexually explicit duet Je T’Aime… Moi Non Plus to a record exec (portrayed by legendary new wave director Claude Chabrol).
While I did absolutely adore G:AHL and I will gladly see it again, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a few of the issues I had with it in a strictly structural sense. It’s far from perfect, in that Sfar spends far too much time on Gainsbourg’s childhood and then follows a rigidly linear path without explaining very thoroughly who’s who (prior knowledge of SG’s life events would be helpful… I went in knowing little, but have since quickly educated myself).
Boyhood lingers too long, while his cocksman trajectory is only sketched out quickly by illustrating an adolescent flirtation with an artist’s model and his short-lived first marriage to Salvador Dali’s lover Elisabeth Levitsky (Deborah Grall). Also given the short-shrift are Juliette Greco (Anna Mouglalis), Boris Vian (Philippe Katerine), France Gall (Sara Forestier), Bambou (Mylene Jampanoi), and especially the unconventional relationship to his daughter (one of three children) Charlotte, with whom he recorded the scandalous song Lemon Incest (and which is never even mentioned in the biopic).
For more on Gainsbourg as a family man, father, and icon-cum-iconoclast from Charlotte’s perspective, do read this excellent 2007 article from Vanity Fair.
As a musical mischief maker who exuded endless existential ennui, Serge’s complexity is just too ungainly for any one biopic — all in all, G:AHL is great starter kit. It touches on his affairs of the heart, and there’s an overview of his considerable contribution to music which encompassed not only the dirty ditties, but lounge crooning, bubblegum pop, rock, folk and reggae.
The genesis of several of his greatest hits, including…
France Gall – Baby Pop [original video]
Brigitte Bardot – Bonnie and Clyde [original video]
Serge Gainsbourg – Initials BB [performed live, intercut with interviews]
Jane Birkin – Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus [footage of the couple in montage]
…are covered in the film, as is his controversial cover of Aux Armes recorded in Jamaica toward the end of his career (he passed on in 1992 at the age of 62 due to cancer and, undoubtedly hard [but fun!] living).