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29 July 2010

The Songs Remain the Same

"You know the music but do you know the man?" asks the international trailer for the movie Gainsbourg. Actually, though, first-time director Joann Sfar explained, in a Q&A after a preview tonight, that he wanted to make a movie about Serge Gainsbourg's music and not Gainsbourg himself, a topic by now well inscribed in the canon of every Frenchman. Sfar, a comic book artist and graphic novellist, hates biopics but quite likes musicals but quite likes musicals so he made a film in which most of the scenes were inspired by the words and tunes of Gainsbourg's songs rather than what the press--and the world--said about him. Perhaps this is why the Gainsbourg family gave Sfar their blessing after blocking films for 19 years: they knew he wasn't going to tell their secrets, he said.

The film was certainly not what I was expecting. I had no idea from the trailer that there would be such a strong fantasy element in the film--throughout, Gainsbarre (the evil alter-ego Gainsbourg coined for himself in the song Ecce Homo), a large, cartoonish character with a caricaturishly large nose and ears, follows him about, criticising his decisions and trying to lead him into temptation. During the credits, Gainsbarre swims through a Beatles-esque sea, filled with jellyfish and other creatures, exploring the Octopus's garden. They left this out of the trailer because "French people don't like fantasy films" (which, added Sfar, is a shame because he wants to make a movie with vampires in it and he can't understand why the French don't like films with lots of sucking...).

When asked by an audience member tonight which parts of the film were true and which were made up, Sfar explained that everything was based on the ideas expressed in the songs but obviously, not everything Gainsbourg wrote in his songs was true... I knew almost nothing about Gainsbourg before seeing the film apart from that he sung Je t'aime... and had some involvement with Jane Birkin (whose name I know mainly from the Hermes bag named after her). I didn't know he was originally a painter and only played the piano to pay for canvases until (in the film at least) Gainsbarre convinced him to ditch the painting but this matters little.

I wanted to see the film because a) I enjoy watching French films (and want to try to keep up my French) and b) the actress who played Birkin, Lucy Gordon, to whom the film is dedicated and who took her own life last year, went to my school and I was interested in seeing her last movie. As I said, I'm an expert of neither Birkin nor Gainsbourg but Gordon and Eric Elmosnino, who played Gainsbourg, had great chemistry and were really fun to watch on screen. The surreality counterbalanced what could have been a melodrama--the affairs, the divorces, the alcoholism, the deaths. Gainsbourg is not portrayed as a bad man, however, and never judged. He is who he is and yet people love him nonetheless. "It is a film about a man who just wants to be loved by everyone," said Sfar, "although he gets confused between being loved by his women and by his audience."

Would I have gone to see the film if I'd known it wasn't a straight biopic? Probably not. But did I enjoy it? Yes, definitely.

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