The Same Old Song, by Tyler Smith
Within the first fifteen minutes of Joann Sfar’s Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, I really felt like I was watching something special. A biopic of French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, the film immediately took off on various flights of fancy, showing us the creative inner life of Gainsbourg as a child. The fantastical elements of his imagination are on full display, and he interacts with them as if they really existed (because, of course, for many children, they do). We see the way in which the young Gainsbourg looks at the world around him and interprets it into a series of whimsical images and characters. Indeed, this was going to be a fun, inventive biopic.
Sadly, it was not to be.
While I may not have been very aware the story of Serge Gainsbourg- or his music, for that matter- everything about the film quickly started to sound familiar. A brilliant artist whose penchant for drugs, women, and self destruction leads to a sad, lonely life that few can truly understand. With a basic structure like that, we could be watching Ray or The Doors or Walk the Line or Control or Last Days or Pollock or I’m Not There. The list can go on and on.
Gainsbourg falls squarely into a genre that moviegoers have become all too familiar with: the warts-and-all artistic biopic. It has become such a staple of filmmaking that it was even parodied (albeit poorly) in Walk Hard. However, Gainsbourg charges on ahead, seemingly unaware or uninterested in how well-trod this territory truly is. Perhaps that is to its credit, but it made for a rather tedious experience.
I’ve never really understood why filmmakers have a desire to depict a beloved cultural icon in the worst way possible. Of course, we do want these films to take some of the mysterious sheen off of them, but too often the director doesn’t seem to know when to stop. Eventually, we find ourselves forgetting any sort of cultural or artistic milestone that the subject may have achieved; we only know how much of a selfish monster they apparently are.
I’m not totally sure if Joann Sfar is aware of how truly awful a person Serge Gainsbourg appears to be in this film. By describing the film we’re seeing as “A Heroic Life,” I’m not sure if Sfar is being a bit wry, or if he is totally oblivious. It’s entirely possible, I think, that Sfar is being ironic with this title, which would then mean that he is approaching Gainsbourg with a certain amount of judgment. If this is the case, I find myself wondering why he felt he should make the film in the first place. We’ve heard of filmmakers hating their characters, but it takes a rare kind of hate to devote an entire film- from concept to execution- to the dismantling of an otherwise-respected cultural figure.
All that is purely academic, though. In actuality, I don’t think that Sfar was meaning for his film to be an indictment of Serge Gainsbourg. Instead, I think that he was perhaps such a fan of the man’s wonderful music that he lost any perspective on the self-obsessed misanthrope that he was depicting.
There is plenty to like in the film. Eric Elmosnino’s performance as Gainsbourg is really wonderful. His lack of judgment of a man whose fascination with himself led to the abandonment of numerous women is a testament to his commitment to the character. Elmosnino plays Gainsbourg as a man driven by his own defiant impulses. He is obsessed with maintaining a certain image (personified in the film as a gangly caricature that pesters him throughout his life), and will sacrifice anything in order to achieve that image. It doesn’t really matter what he wants, only that he remains a cultural enigma. Nobody can really figure him out, and that’s just the way he likes it. Elmosnino creates a sad man whose connection to his fellow human beings can’t seem to move too far beyond sexual infatuation and exploitation.
The art direction and cinematography really do a solid job of creating a sense of place and time. The Paris that Gainsbourg inhabited is a city of dimly lit alleyways and smokey music clubs. There is junk and clutter everywhere, primarily because nobody really wants to clean it all up. In many ways, it’s a sort of citywide bachelor pad. In a world like this, it is easy to see how Gainsbourg started to cultivate his cool cat image.
The musical performances are very enticing. They certainly made me want to learn more about Gainsbourg’s music, which is to the film’s credit. There was a tantalizing mystery to these sequences, made all the more so because there are so few of them. This is to the film’s detriment, I feel, because we are only allowed brief glimpses and hints of Gainsbourg’s artistic brilliance. This isn’t quite enough to offset the boorish behavior that he displays throughout the film, leading us to believe that Serge Gainsbourg was a self-centered narcissist who occasionally made great music, rather than believing that he was a brilliant artist whose personal flaws led to a dissatisfied existence.
Putting the art front and center in an artist biopic is the most important element in keeping us invested in the story. If we are able to see and understand the subject’s genius, we are less inclined to condemn him. In fact, we desperately want to root for him. Movies like Pollock and Walk the Line wisely feature extended sequences of artists creating art. When Jackson Pollock starts to descend into alcoholism, we actually feel bad for him and wish that he could save himself. When Johnny Cash is pulled out of his self destructive spiral by June, we are genuinely excited.
As much as I hate to be so black and white about this, we are not watching a film about Serge Gainsbourg because he was a womanizing drunk any more than we watch a film about Jim Morrison because he was a vain hipster. We are interested in these people because they did something that none of us could do. They were artists. To lose focus of this is to take away our reason for watching.
Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life made me more aware of the wonderful music of Serge Gainsbourg. For that, I am in its debt. The frustration sets in when I realize that it could have done so much more.