Out this week on DVD. Je l’aime.
(Joann Sfar, Fr, 2010)
A unique pop-opic that infuses familiar material with bold surreal flourishes to convey the highs – as much as the lows – of stardom
The trouble with biopics of musicians is that – regardless of the individual character the film is based on – they quickly revert to the tried-and-tested rise-and-fall narrative arc. Take Ray and Walk The Line, where strikingly similar structural decisions merge the differences between Ray Charles and Johnny Cash’s lives to the point where it’s only really the music that distinguishes one from another. Even the good pop-opics, like Control, cleave to the template to some extent.
It’s to Joann Sfar’s credit, then, that he takes such a bold tack with his study of maverick Gallic icon Serge Gainsbourg, fashioning a film in its subject’s self-image: prickly, complex and surreal. As a directorial disclaimer at the film’s end explains, Sfar is more interested in the lies than the truth of a figure who “transcended reality,” and the result is as boldly freewheeling a genre-fucker as Serge’s own musical and psychological reinventions.
Certainly, the last thing you expect is for Guillermo Del Toro’s monster man of choice, Doug Jones, to turn up as Gainsbourg’s conscience – a giant papier-mache anti-Semitic caricature based on the singer’s own self-loathing, as if Frank Sidebottom had turned into a malevolent Jiminy Cricket. It’s a whimsical conceit that threatens to derail proceedings, but Sfar is unusually fascinated not with the external tragedies of Gainsbourg’s life (like the Ray and Cash films) but the singer’s inner psychological turmoil. The use of the apparition makes weird sense because Serge is as liberated by his outsider status as he is troubled by it, a Faust to the creature’s Mephistopheles.
The result, far from wallowing in pity, brings on the good times, the gimmick of the creature allowing Sfar to hide the darkness in plain sight in order to focus on the legend of Gainsbourg, rebel and lover par excellence. This is a naughty film of the kind that only the French can do, never prurient but giddily, wryly self-aware about its sexual identity – reminiscent of Patrice Lectone’s light-hearted studies of infatuation, like Le Parfum D’Yvonne or especially The Hairdresser’s Husband, another film about a man whose sexual appetites have got stuck in the idealised fantasies of his youth.
There are so many women circling him that the film is over halfway through before the star attractions – Laetitia Casta’s uncanny Brigitte Bardot and the late Lucy Gordon’s waif-like Jane Birkin – arrive to bring us up to date with the period where most British people’s knowledge of Gainsbourg begins: the scandalous success of “Je T’Aime” and its transformation of the artist into a controversy-plagued, gossip-generating rock star. In most biopics, this would be the meat of the drama…and Sfar certainly dabbles with scenes of Gainsbourg breaking down or creating trouble (like his sacriligeous reggae version of ‘La Marseillaise’). But the long build-up transforms the genre cliché into something else. For once, here is a singer in a film who seems to actively want the meltdown, because it will prove everything he’s always thought about himself.
Inevitably, in a life this rich there are pacing issues, especially in a final half hour that has to catch up on the last 30 years of Gainsbourg’s life – but then, most of France will know these chapters well enough from those infamous chat show appearances not to need to see them. And, even in its occasional longeurs, the film is grounded by the anchoring presence of Eric Elmosnino, an actor whose heavy-lidded resemblance to Gainsbourg is so precise, down to the way a cigarette permanently flopping down from his lips, that immersion is total in Sfar’s live-action cartoon.
Tagged French Cinema