Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

Picture young Woody Allen at his peak in the Oscar-winning Annie Hall.  He’s a manic motor-mouth with mannerisms so Jewish that he’s almost a walking stereotype.  Now meet Gainsbourg, Allen’s French counterpart.

In Joann Sfar’s fascinating new BioPic Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, nerdy young “Lucien Ginsberg” (Kacey Mottet-Klein) recreates himself as suave “Serge Gainsbourg” (Eric Elmosnino), an incredibly successful entertainer and the bedmate of countless beautiful shiksas.

But Allen has retained enough public sympathy to keep working way past his creative prime, whereas Gainsbourg–now long dead–was unable to hold his demons at bay.  What accounts for the difference?  When all is said and done, surely the fact that Gainsbourg was French and actually faced the trauma of the Holocaust on a daily basis cannot be underestimated.

Sfar dramatizes the incessantly internalized self-ridicule by creating an alter-ego for Serge called “La Gueule” (derogatory French slang for “face” and called “the mug” in the English subtitles).  Embodied by Doug Jones (the same actor who played the monster in Pan’s Labyrinth), La Gueule’s enormous nose is always there to remind Serge of how close he and “his kind” came to death during the Nazi years.  For decades his brio sustained him, but in the end, Gainsbourg exhasted all his resources from the inside out.

Jones with La Guele

Using superlative visual command, Sfar tells his story with imaginative leaps backwards and forwards in time, but his fantasia is anchored by talented musicians who recreate a chronologically correct backbone of performances from the smokey jazz clubs of the ’50s through the angry rock bars of the ’70s.  And through it all, Serge is always pushing at the edges of the envelope, from a ebulient Klezmer improvisation with a group of child survivors to a transgressive reggae version of La Marseillaise (the French national anthem) guaranteed to enrage blindly self-professed patriots.

Eric Elmosnino is uncanny as Serge, his own ugly mug so radiantly sensual that I wanted to kiss the screen and join his lips to my own.  After almost 50 years as a supporting actor on screen, Elmosnino gave his all to this rare chance for a lead role and has already garnered Best Actor Awards in France (2011 Cesar = the French Oscar) and New York’s Tribecca Film Festival.

But in the end, Sfar’s inspiration comes as much from Marc Chagall’s paintings as from Serge Gainsbourg’s recordings.  In one scene, La Gueule picks Serge up by the collar and they fly out a window and over the lights of Paris…  And my heart soared with them!

Eric Elmosnino

Photos courtesy of Music Box Films.

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