Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Gainsbourg (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

If the affectionate conventionally-told documentary on Kevin Clash [Being Elmo] makes you too warm and fuzzy or jaded by the color red, I suggest sauntering in to see "Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life " . The film is unapologetically  "different" without any pretension or snobbery when so many "Different", "Indie" or "0ffbeat" films wear their hearts on the screen and choose quirk over content. This filmed interpretation on the French singing legend Serge Gainsbourg is free-wheeling, open, and associative with startling animation, a bit like Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville) mixed with Halloween maestro Tim Burton. "Gainsbourg" is nothing less than a chiaroscuro collage on film.

The film is directed by the avant-garde graphic novelist Joann Sfar, who also wrote a novel about the composer. Sfar has the boldness of a mixed media artist for using all materials available. Puppets merge with people and landscapes spin in an out like curls of smoke from Gainsbourg's cigarette. Terry Gilliam should guard his quixotic camera. At times roles are reversed: the puppets are  the people while people are puppets. The film presents an interspecies society---a world seen sideways. Anything goes.

We see Gainsbourg as a boy, smoking a cigarette and left on a Dalinian beach. He is spurned by a valentine for being "too ugly". Gainsbourg pokes his nose everywhere. He even smirkingly jeers at the Nazi soldiers that march past.

They don't know what to make of him.

He gradually develops a persona or a "mug" that is in the form of a extra tall and gaunt puppet/man which looks a bit like The Count from "Sesame Street" but his voice and philosophy is more Leonard Cohen. And, better yet, he has phosphorescent eyes.  

His parents force him to play piano. He refuses. Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino) goes to art school and plays piano to support his painting. As an adult art teacher, Elmosnino bumbles and twitches, aping more than a bit of Woody Allen. 

The narrative is less interesting than the stream of consciousness flow of animation that abruptly stems from Gainsbourg's low self esteem as well as from his gangly, thin and awkward body. Rather than be a cartoon though, Elmosnino brings slapstick to earth and his spasms have purpose. There is method even in a cabbage-head. Judgement always lied in wait for the composer. But when the lights dim he transforms like a chameleon or leopard in dark light becoming the Franc Sinatra of Cool.

Skirt-chasing Serge eventually hits the big time with overtly sexual Lolita-inspired pop tunes that were written for 1960's teen sensation France Gall (Sara Forestier). He has an affair with the voluptuous Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) and they actually write a song together, the hit "Bonnie and Clyde". 

Although the film is often brief and slighting, passing over romps in bed and far too many scenes of Gainsbourg chain-smoking, it has a flashy locomotive flavor that's hard to hate. 
Just when the film gets to flighty, a black cat  speaks with a telepathy that seems utterly authentic and Gainsbourg's puppet-ego enters the room with just as much dramatic bearing as a human player.

The young Lucy Gordon who sadly committed suicide in 2009 plays Gainsbourg's wife Jane Birkin. Gordon shoes a maternal whimsy in her performance. Gordon's portrayal as a maternal sprite could make any singer stop smoking. But even this wasn't enough for Gainsbourg. 

For all the film's familiarities, (the nods to Pee Wee Herman, Woody Allen and Mr. Bean) the blending of animation and puppetry into the demons of alcoholism and adultery are novel and compelling able to make even the most jaded Muppeteer among us stop and look. 
It is interesting to note that Gainsbourg's  daughter, the actress Charlotte Gainsbourg (Melancholia) was asked to play her father in this film.

What a different "different" film that would have been.

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