Tuesday, 3 August 2010


At last a film that gives hope to ugly johnnys everywhere, those for whom the words "buffed" and "chiseled" could only refer to their hapless experiments in d-i-y. Thanks to Joann Safar's film Gainsbourg, these men can believe that they have the power to attract the most beautiful women in the world. After all, if the dweeby Serge Gainsbourg with his beak nose and elephantine ears could date, among many others, the ravishing Brigitte Bardot and the gamine beauty, Jane Birkin, then there is hope for all the aesthetically challenged. Serge Gainsbourg proved that it is not a six pack that is the way to a woman's heart, but a single pack of Gauloises cigarettes and a nicotine stained voice singing Je t'aime...moi non plus.

Safar's film is not a conventional biopic. Using animation, puppetry and an array of narrative devices, he builds an impressionistic sketch of Gainsbourg. In tone the film is closer to Todd Haynes's meditation on the life of Bob Dylan in I'm Not There (2007) than, for example, James Mangold's Oscar winning, Walk the Line, which provided a chronologically driven telling of the life of Johnny Cash. In a recent interview, Safar admitted:
Serge Gainsbourg created a character for himself. I don't want to go around delving into his personal life to discover who he really was. I couldn't care less about the truth. I love Gainsbourg too much to bring him back to the realms of reality...I want to make a cult film, not a journalistic account of his life.

I tell stories through images, so my film is very visual. It is full of lies, because I love lies. This is how I go about creating a modest and self-conscious work: lying, always lying. I always do a great deal of documentary research beforehand and then purposefully forget half of what I learned. Then I take my subject and make him into a legendary hero...I believe that Gainsbourg is more heroic than Superman, in the sense that the Greeks understood it, because a hero is someone who suffers and gets knocked down, but will still grab burning coals with his hands.

I'm not sure how seriously one can takes such comments, especially when Safar's film so closely follows the narrative arc of Gainsbourg's life. We see the Russian/Jewish Gainsbourg's youthful contempt for the anti-semitism of Nazi-occupied France and his creative longings to be a painter. By all accounts, this does not deviate from the biographical details of Gainsbourg's early life. But Safar takes these basic facts and creates a fictional scene (as far as I am aware) of emotional intensity. To earn some money, the adult Gainsbourg is forced into giving a music lesson at a school for orphans who have lost their parents in the Nazi death camps. As his reservations evaporate before the class, he begins to dance wildly and Gainsbourg the performer is revealed. The children burst into spontaneous applause. Beaming, Gainsbourg is grasped by his vocation.

The vocation was music. The film captures the eclectic range of musical genres that inspired Gainsbourg. From French chanson through teeny bop pop to reggae, Gainsbourg's music was always shapeshifting and provocative. With lyrics that combined poetry, scatology and agitprop, Gainsbourg seemed to capture the prevailing mood of the 1960's. All polite social conventions and moralities were exploded on stage. Yet, ultimately, the real casualty of this performance was himself and Safar does not shy away from the destructive aspects of Gainsbourg's personality. The alcoholism, broken relationships, cheap publicity stunts and sleazy film appearances were all desperate attempts by Gainsbourg to keep his myth alive. The myth lived, but something of the man perished. In a seedy nightclub near the end of the film, Gainsbourg picks up a beautiful, drunk young girl. "I want someone to save me," she says to him. "That's life...," he replies, a cigarette hanging from his bottom lip. This exchange may be the fantastical invention of Joann Safar, the lies he admires and wants to propogate, but it also speaks in an authentic way of that universal ache within all human beings for redemption. And that is an important truth.

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