Are You Being Serge’d?

[Film] Gainsbourg (Vie Héroïque)

An icon in his home country, the general perception of Serge Gainsbourg outside France doesn’t stretch much beyond that of a drunken, lecherous chatshow caricature, responsible for Je T’aime and not much else. While unlikely to satisfy fanboy completists, Joann Sfar’s biopic – adapted from his own graphic novel – seeks to at least give an impressionistic overview (you know, because he’s French) of this contradictory, often contrary artist’s life and career.

Opening with a seaside snog rejection, on the grounds that the then Lucien Ginsburg is “too ugly” the film posits that it was his outsider status, both his looks and his Judaism, that would shape him. From that moment on a Hasid is sown in his mind that his cartoonish visage, his ‘mug’, is something that will always hold him back. But no art school mope he; whilst spying on a nude model in art class, the pre-pubescent filth hound feels the first Serge in his loins, asking her to pose for him privately, but requesting she do so topless as “I don’t know how to draw bras.” *Makes mental note* Meanwhile, it’s the proliferation of repugnant anti-semitic images that Serge encounters in wartime France that strengthen his rebellious streak. To combat these he brings to life an almost Frank Sidebottom-like caricature he has sketched of himself, who becomes his alter ego, voicing his inner conflicts, often between high and low art, and leading him astray. Gainsbourg names him Gainsbarre, although he may as well be referred to as an Improvised Expository Device.

Under the strict tutelage of his father, it is evident that Gainsbourg is both a prodigiously talented artist and musician, though it’s when he realises that his musical skills are catnip to the art college lovelies that his love affair with music really begins. As even his father notes “you play better at night.” Flash forward and the now adult Gainsbourg (Éric Elmosnino) is taking art classes by day and playing dive bars at night, muff-diving most daily. Elmosnino bears a striking physical resemblance to Gainsbourg but also in his portrayal,  manages to walk the fine line between louche charm and dishevelled library masturbator. Serge starts a relationship with student Elisabeth Levitsky (who he would subsequently marry, though you’d never know it from the film) and it’s during this period that he ditches any pretensions of a career in fine art and instead seeks his fortune, whoring his more populist, often bawdy songs, to the Gallic chanteuses of the era – from ‘show me the Monet’ to ‘show me the money.’

Now enjoying the first flush of fame, the lugubrious lothario hops from one generic Euro-bint to the next, even having the Gaul to get his second wife Béatrice Pancrazzi (again, huh?) to give him a lift to the home of his latest ‘collaborator’ Françoise Hardy. However, it’s when he hooks up with talentless ingenue and non-more French sounding France Gall that his career goes into overdrive, getting her to sing the innuendo-laden Les Sucettes, about a young girl’s fondness for sucking lollipops. It was a song that would later be referenced by arch-humourist and renowned pop historian 50 Cent. This gives him cart blanche to work with whoever he likes, most notably adolescent spank-bank fixture Brigitte Bardot, with whom he starts an affair. Played with considerable verve by Laetitia Casta, she may be able rock a man’s shirt and thigh boots, but chick can’t act or sing for toffee. Much like BB herself, the mad racist. It is she who really stokes his ardour, laying in bed and imploring him to “go to the piano and write me the most beautiful love song.” Of course what he comes back with is the original fuck anthem and the relationship soon breaks down, expedited by Bardot’s husband’s refusal to allow its release. But it isn’t long before Serge moves on to his next project.

Gainsbourg’s tempestuous relationship with Jane Birkin (the late Lucy Gordon) begins when he seduces her by drunkenly sketching her and wittily observing “you have great legs.” This shit is gold, I tell you, write it down. Despite inevitably courting controversy by releasing their version of Je T’aime, it’s while the two are together that Gainsbourg achieves some stability. As if to hammer the point home, his mischievous alter ego disappears from view, for a while at least. Now a married father, his incessant drinking and smoking never abate, eventually leading to a coronary. Rather than taking this as a cue to slow down, it only encourages Serge to live harder than ever, in defiance of his doctors, his wife, everyone, eventually leading to their divorce. The spiral of decline continues until he becomes a pathetic, double denim-clad pervert, trawling Paris’ seedier nightspots in his high-waisted jeans, on the lookout for damaged goods. Here he meets his fourth and final wife, Bambou, a Eurasian model. Again, it’s a seduction technique as old as time: “You just want to fuck me, don’t you?” “Yes, but I meant it poetically.” “Well you’re wasted, so at least it won’t hurt.” “I’ve never had any complaints, horizontally.” You had me at ‘Bonjour.’ In the frankly botched ending it’s suggested that it was with her that Gainsbourg finally achieved true happiness. They were to be together until his death.

It’s the rushed ending which sums up the film as a whole. While evident that much like Gainsbourg’s early artwork, it’s intended as more sketch than detailed portrait, a lot of aspects of his life seem to be skirted around. Whilst by no means a hagiography, the more unsavoury elements of his character – the alcoholism, the womanising, and the dubious songs such as Lemon Incest (recorded with daughter Charlotte) – are largely glossed over like a spoiled canvas. By concentrating on two main relationships in his life, the whole project feels somewhat insular, giving nary a hint of his worldwide fame and notoriety. In addition, it’s hard to say how much anti-semitism really drove Gainsbourg, and how much this is the director’s own obsession. In the end his portrayal is almost redolent of Seinfeld’s Uncle Leo – blaming everything on anti-semitism. Although he undoubtedly encountered much, it feels like a somewhat laboured hook on which to hang the story. The outcry portrayed surrounding his reggae reworking of Les Marseillaise, would seem to be as much about racism in France in general as anti-semitism.

These criticisms aren’t to say it’s not an enjoyable experience. As an evocation of the period it positively sings, aided, of course, by a killer soundtrack. And Elmosnino’s turn is as engaging as it is uncanny, delicately balancing Gainsbourg’s knack of pricking pomposity whilst behaving like a pompous prick. But as an introduction to the man and his work, it’s merely an amuse bouche.

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2 Responses to “Are You Being Serge’d?”

  1. SolidChris Says:

    This is a bumper year for the man Cage yet this film persuaded you to write? Why so?

  2. Well I did Bad Lieutenant and just never got round to writing about Kick-Ass. Fear not though, I’ll be all over Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Season Of The Witch when they come out. Anyway, who *doesn’t* want to read my take on the latest World Cinema has to offer? Variety being the spice of blogging.

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