Friday, November 25, 2011

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life: Grade B

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Doug Jones; Writer-Director Joann Sfar (French, subtitled)

Serge Gainsbourg was a pop singer-songwriter in France who enjoyed enormous fame in the mid 1960’s. Though virtually unknown in America today, this biopic is worth seeing because it is a visual feast, an auditory feast, and an acting feast.

Writer-Director Joann Sfar is a creator of comic books (or “graphic novels,” as they are reverently known) and his uninhibited, surrealistic visual sensibility dominates the film, especially in the first half, which covers the childhood of Lucien Ginsberg (real name) in Nazi-occupied Paris. The boy’s alter-ego is a huge balloon with tiny arms and legs, that follows him around, mocking his self-image as an ugly kid, and his Jewishness. The anti-semitism of the Vichy regime is noted, but the story line is really about the boy’s irreverent, iconoclastic, precocious, artistic soul, as he develops his talent as a painter. At times, his alter-ego is represented by an animated figure that swoops around Paris. These early scenes get an A+ for creativity and visual attractiveness.

But it is nominally a biography, so the boy becomes a man (suddenly, without incident), a piano player and song-writer who works sleazy bars and hopes to succeed as a painter. His alter-ego is now played, wonderfully, by a costumed icon with huge nose and ears (Jones), who follows him around and seems to represent his grounding, his center, who he really is (in his mind). Gainsbourg (the adult stage name) is played brilliantly by the relatively unknown actor Elmosnino. His presentation, always through a blue cloud of Gauloises smoke, is simply eye-gripping. In his own voice he sings in the style of ‘60’s chanson, and the songs are great. He cavorts with multiple women, including Bridget Bardot, wonderfully played by Casta, a sensation in her own right. He performs a fabulous reggae version of the Marseillaise, and as he becomes a huge star, also becomes a drunken fool who loses his compass.

During the last half of the film, the visual creativity that was so stunning earlier, fades, and the movie focuses on the psychological development of the artist as he loses his center but never despairs that, though others around him do. The last half runs far too long and dwells too closely, without insight, on basically an unattractive person, diminishing the overall effectiveness of the movie. Nevertheless the film is a work of art worth seeking out.

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