Film Review: Gainsbourg (2010)

on Friday, August 06, 2010
Words: Alicia McBride

'Gainsbourg'//'Vie héroïque' (2010)

Director: Joann Sfar
Cast: Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Doug Jones

In typical French fashion, 'Gainsbourg' is all about sex and cigarettes. If your idea of a good film is watching a man chain smoke his way to decrepitude alongside a bevy of beautiful and frequently naked women then 'Gainsbourg' has endless appeal. If you like a bit of substance with your clichés than sadly this film is lacking.

The film begins well - the cockiness and maturity of the young Serge Gainsbourg is highly amusing, if not a little worrying, but this is revealed to be a coping mechanism for something much darker. Gainsbourg grew up a Jew in Nazi-occupied France and was sent away from home, where he relied on his skills as an artist and his imagination to keep him from loneliness and despair - although you sense that the pain never really left him.

The beginning of the film also introduces Le Gueule, or Gainsbourg’s ‘mug’, an animated doppelganger that follows him throughout the film. It is used most effectively during his childhood, where it appears as a huge, engorged face reflecting Gainsbourg’s awareness of being watched and looked for, for being Jewish. Later in the film it simply becomes his alter-ego, the enabler of bad deeds and ill-advised seductions. In some ways this does the film a disservice, Gainsbourg’s lack of culpability for his actions is frustrating and his refusal to take responsibility certainly makes him unlikeable. However, this is acknowledged towards the end when the two characters merge and Gainsbourg becomes the horrowshow he was always half entranced by, half running from.

Part of the failure of the film is that there is very little to engage with emotionally. It encompasses his entire life, which is too expansive for a two hour film. There is never time to get under Gainsbourg’s skin, to really understand what he is thinking or feeling. Instead it is just a series of encounters and events that rush by and are over before you have time to really feel anything.

There are two brilliant (but woefully short) scenes that are an exception to this lack of engagement. After his break-up with Brigitte Bardot, Gainsbourg sits in a chair crying while listening to a stripped back, beautiful and haunting version of the incredible 'Initials BB'. It contrasts perfectly with the first time the song is used - loud and glorious - as Bardot struts down the corridor towards him, sexy as hell. The second exception is after his father dies and he loses control in the back of a police van. It is an intense scene, steeped in loss and emotion.

Overall, 'Gainsbourg' is far from being dreadful. Considering it is Sfar’s debut, it is brave, ambitious and stylishly executed. The acting is superb, especially from the late Lucy Gordon who portrays a love-struck Jane Birkin beautifully and with a realism that is rare and difficult to capture. Of course, the film’s greatest strength is the music and luckily for fans it packs in as many of the hits as it can. As an added bonus there is also a very steamy dance from Laetitia Casta, who plays the infamous Bardot.

The film may not be a must-see but definitely worth it for fans of Serge Gainsbourg and anyone who wants to perfect the French insouciance that is always accompanied by a cigarette, there is plenty to learn from here.

'Gainsbourg' is in UK cinemas now, having been released on July 30th.

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