Monday, 9 August 2010

'Gainsbourg' review: Fun, imaginative, but insubstantial...

Most comic book adaptations are pretty far removed from their source material. There are a few notable exceptions to this. Frank Miller was credited as a co-director, along with Robert Rodriquez, for the almost shot-for-shot 2005 adaptation of his comic book 'Sin City'. Similarly, Daniel Clowes worked closely with director Terry Zwigoff in 2001, co-writing the adaptation of his own 'Ghost World'. But otherwise comic book movies (as diverse as 'X-Men', 'The Road to Perdition' and 'V for Vendetta') are a separate animal, sometimes even disowned by the comics original creator (see any Alan Moore adaptation). Usually, the rights to make the comic are purchased by a studio and somebody unconnected to the material is hired to make a movie. Sometimes, as with most superhero movies, only the characters - and possibly their origins - are retained, the plot lines often differing wildly from anything in the comics' own continuity.

But in France, the home of auteur theory, a couple of quirky, creator-led adaptations have come to cinemas in recent years. In 2007 Marjane Satrapi co-wrote and directed the quite brilliant animated version of her graphic novel 'Persepolis'. And now Joann Sfar has written and directed a biopic of the legendary French singer-songwriter, Serge Gainsbourg, based on his own comic book. And, just like Satrapi's film, 'Gainsbourg' is highly stylised, playful and experimental whilst never straying too far away from reality. So when Guillermo del Toro regular Doug Jones turns up in a bizarre costume representing both Gainsbourg's self-image and on-stage persona, it doesn't seem out of place. Nor does it seem in opposition to the performances from many of the quirky and eccentric supporting players such as Yolande Moreau (who has a small role as the singer and actress Fréhel).

For fans of post-war French popular music, I am sure 'Gainsbourg' is a must-see film, featuring lots of musical performances and with actors playing various singers the 50s up to the 80s including France Gall, Boris Vian, Juliette Gréco, Les Frères Jacques and, of course, Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot. However, as I personally know very little about Serge Gainsbourg or the wider French music scene, 'Gainsbourg' proved a fairly frustrating film. It is episodic, taking us from Serge's childhood up to near the end of his life, hardly stopping for breath along the way. Everything is painted in broad brushstrokes, scenes are brief sketches and icons are played as icons rather than real people. It is a film about myths which simply serves to repeat them. There is certainly fun to be had here, but there is no insight to be gained. Those in the know might appreciate the lightness of touch on show here, but I for one needed more of a context for each (seemingly unconnected) event.

"How popular is he at this point?" and "How did he go from writing songs for cabaret acts to sleeping with Brigitte Bardot?" were among the questions I was asking which went unanswered. When a record producer tells Gainsbourg and Birkin (played ably by the British Lucy Gordon who tragically committed suicide soon after the production finished shooting) that their new single "Je t'aime... moi non plus" will spark mass controversy, we are never shown the results. Refreshing brevity for those in the know, perhaps, but I needed a bit more information. It is a film made for fans - and that's fine - but don't expect to find out anything you couldn't glean from the man's wikipedia entry.

The film does make a connection between the central figure's adoption of his stage persona and his growing up Jewish in Nazi occupied France, suggesting that a degree of self-loathing manifested itself as bombast sophistication and self-conscious elegance. This is conveyed via Doug Jones' absurdist caricature costume representations of Gainsbourg, which interact with the real, more introverted version of the man (played an uncanny doppelganger in Eric Elmosnino) as well as with the other characters in each scene, crossing a line between fantasy and reality. The childhood scenes, in which young then Lucien Ginsburg (Kacey Mottet Klein) is followed around by a huge, Nazi propaganda-inspired caricature Jewish head, are a real highlight.

But in the end it is very much the breezy and whimsical comic book movie version of this icon's life. Not without some arresting visuals, imaginative touches and stirring renditions of classic pieces of kitsch pop (the enthusiastic, up tempo recital of 'Baby Pop' is a highlight). Sfar's film is willfully enigmatic, like the man himself - and I am sure that was the intention - but ultimately it made me hungry for a more in-depth look at Serge Gainsbourg's life and career. Maybe this renewed interest is the film's real achievement.

'Gainsbourg' is still playing in the UK and is rated '15' by the BBFC. It is doing fairly well in the UK too, and is still hanging on in the top ten.

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