If there’s one thing that Joann Sfar’s Gainsbourg (2010) – an innovative biopic of cult French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg – told me, it’s that he smoked…a lot. And sometimes, he didn’t shave for a few days. He also had an extraordinary allure for women since pre-pubescence. However, this was about all the insight provided by Sfar’s competent effort.
Like last year’s Notorious (2009), nothing in the film successfully told me why the eponymous lead was, first and foremost, a revolutionary and inspirational musician and songwriter, making any mention of his record work a moment of novelty, seemingly a cheap nod to music fans. Gainsbourg’s offer to write a “dirty song…about lollipops” for France Gall makes sense only to those familiar with the ridiculously obvious sexual double-meanings of her song Lollipops, and the camp, over-the-top reactions of a record studio executive to Gainsbourg and wife Jane Birkin’s classic Je t’aime, moi non plus are near laugh-inducing, rather than putting across the freshness of this songwriter’s voice.
These moments jar awkwardly with the competently directed (if emotionally uninvolving) scenes of Serge’s struggle with his numerous partners and children, as Sfar finds difficulty in balancing a film’s worth of family troubles alongside another film’s worth of musical evolution – here made fantastical through the use of Doug Jones’ ‘Mug’, a Jack Skellington-like caricature figure following Serge through his life, pushing his ambitions. However, despite Doug Jones’ consistently fine work, these fantastical moments aren’t even strong enough to seem out of place, they are just dull. All they made me wish for was a The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) live-action remake starring Jones.
Sfar is clearly in love with his topic, if perhaps a little too much, as an honest performance from Lucy Gordon as Jane Birkin, a woman left somewhat broken by Gainsbourg’s selfishness, feels a little swept-under-the-carpet by falling back on his visions of his ‘mug’, thus almost justifying his reasons for treating her so badly. Even as I write this however, I feel unsure of saying he treated his wife very badly, as the film’s attempt to cram so much into so short a time (i.e. every major event in Gainsbourg’s life) leaves the emotionally impacting moments lost somewhere in the mix.
It seems harsh to criticise the film for being so conventional, following Walk The Line (2005) and Ray’s (2004) conclusion of discussing a popular singer brought down by personal demons, drugs, drink and seduction, but the problem here appears to be that despite a fine performance from Eric Elmosnino (bearing a striking similarity to the real Serge), we have a greatest hits album of Gainsbourg ‘moments’ we should go away and realise the importance of ourselves. But now that I think about it, anything alerting people to someone like Gainsbourg’s mere presence isn’t necessarily a bad thing.