17 November 2011

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life / Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)

In October I had the opportunity to attend a sneak preview of the film Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) / Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life at The Music Box Theater. The film was a whimsical interpretation of the biography depicting the life of the artist and musician, Serge Gainsbourg. Written and directed by the graphic novelist Joann Sfar, the feature film reads much like a contemporary graphic novel, combining elements of fantasy and non-reality with the harsh truths of history that intertwine with Gainsbourg's biography and larger-than-life rock star persona.

Let me begin with a statement of both fact and opinion regarding tastes:
If you like French films, you will like this.
If you like films set in the 1960's, you will like this.
If you like French films from the 1960's, you probably won't like this.

There is something about Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) that felt incredibly French. Yes, it was made by a French artist/director/filmmaker, and yes, a majority of the movie took place in France. So naturally, it should feel French. But what solidified the française feel wasn't in the set or plot, but in the way things pan out for the people in the story - a sort of effortlessness that goes into leading a charmed and fulfilling life. Beginning in Paris in the late 30's, the story shows Gainsburg, then known as Lucien Ginsburg, a young boy dealing with the mingling issues of adolescence, coming of age, struggling to learn to play piano, Nazi occupation, and just plain being a boy. As a means of grappling with his day-to-day dilemmas, Ginsburg uses his imagination to escape the mundane and begins to question his sense self. Creating an alternate personality known only as his "mug", which acts as both his voice of reason and his inner demon.

Gainsbourg's "mug", a whimsical puppet via source
The issue of identity is the driving force of this film as Gainsbourg struggles to understand himself as an artist and musician by the means of reinventing himself. Like the great Cubists working in France at the turn of the 20th century, Gainsburg's persona is fragmented to the core. With pieces of his childhood-self coexisting and intertwining with his contemporary being. In order to assert his identity, Gainsbourg uses the tools of  fashion, music, visual art, and charm as a means of defining himself as a musician and artist - much like Andy Warhol did in the late 50's in New York. With his reinvention, Gainsbourg finds a woman to shape him and stand in as his muse, including iconic beauties like Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin. And with each reinvention of the self comes a new musical styling, ranging from the structured jazz of elite night clubs, fun French new wave pop, raunchy spoken word epithets of sex, rock, and drugs, to his later islander inspired tunes recorded in Jamaica.

Gainsbourg and Bardot collaborating in a charming musical number via Music Box Theater
What makes this film work is the cohesiveness of the many different versions of Gainsbourg that fill the space of the story. The youngest Ginsbourg played by the delightful Kacey Mottet Klein is both a young man and an old soul wrapped into one. He prophetically smokes cigarettes like the man he is to become, and flirts with woman regardless of age or beauty. The adolescent through aged Gainsbourg skillfully played by Eric Elmosnino carries the film from decade to decade. Elmosnino perfectly evokes the Gainsbourg of each new personal creation, tapping into the charm, wit, and inner-turmoil that the musician carries with him. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life acknowledges Gainsbourg’s womanizing through depictions of his affairs and marriages, but it depicts him in a humane and honest way, attributing his imperfections to his lack of identity – giving the viewers a better understanding of the man he was, a man of great talent spurred from the great heaviness of becoming and being Gainsbourg.
Eric Elmosnino as Gainsbourg via source

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