Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, playing tonight and this weekend at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, explores the particular effect of one musical genius on the people and the world around him. Whether as a precocious child negotiating with officials in Nazi occupied France or as a womanizing pop star, Serge Gainsbourg nee Lucien Ginsberg seduces with a kind of musical wit born of the most special type of imagination.
All throughout Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life we witness Serge’s invisible friends. He’s rarely without his Drop Dead Fred kind of imaginary buddy. As a child the friend looks like one of those creatures from Where The Wild Things Are, and as an adult the friend takes on a kind of apparition of the Id complete with bony fingers, a puppet face with distorted nose and ears.
Not ironically the music of Serge’s greatest songs (from recordings Serge made in the mid-to-late-60s) themselves collected on the posthumous Comic Strip (1996) figure prominently in the film. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life’s writer and director is one of France’s best illustrators, Joann Sfar, and the film’s look has the charm and mystery of his graphic novels.
While the film may get by on its good looks (and great songs) the overall style renders the experience more surreal than realistic. This is a film concerned with Serge’s relations with the most beautiful women in the world including Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin (and likewise his daughter Charlotte herself now a well known actress). When Serge brings Bardot over to his parent’s abode his previously stern father starts dancing a jig of joy. The film also depicts the way Serge bottomed out later in his career, and includes his experimentation with reggae music. There’re so many shots of cigarettes being lit, inhaled and exhaled that if you cut all those shots the film would lose a reel.
Most of G:AHL takes place in the 60s and that’s a warm bath place to exist. Snippets of creativity abound between Serge and his collaborators, so for the audience it’s like eavesdropping on moments of supreme creativity between two great artists. For instance we observe Serge and Brigitte coming up with the call and response vocal style on “Bonnie and Clyde.” In some ways the film will remind viewers of the recent Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose, but that’s a superficial comparison. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life has its head in the clouds and expects the audience to be there too.
Note the different start times of the film’s engagement. On Friday night only the film will be followed by an episode from a French television show, Gainsbourg: Exterior Night (Gainsbourg: Extérieur Nuit) with that show’s director, Patrice Vanoni in attendance. A holiday reception will follow. Exterior Night is just that; we follow Gainsbourg, accompanied by one of his sweet things, cavorting around Paris, smoking, singing, talking and seemingly have a grand time. Locations for the show include La Bar du Ritz and La Tour d’Argent, and the real life contrast between the legend (in the film portrayed by Eric Elmosnino) and the actual man provides a satisfyingly complete portrait of Serge Gainsbourg.
– Michael Bergeron