Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Gainsbourg (wr/dir Joann Sfar, 2010)

Last week we made a rare venture from the BFI to the Curzon Soho to see Gainsbourg – a biopic of the French singer-songwriter written and directed by Joann Sfar. Going north of the river... brrrr. 


Anyway, from a screenwriting/creative point of view, two things stuck me in particular.

The first was Sfar's exuberant use of non-naturalistic devices. Although this is his first film, he's a prolific and successful creator of bandes dessinées (graphic novels), and a strong graphic style and visual imagination becomes apparent early on.

When the young Lucian Ginsberg, the son of exiled Russian Jews in occupied France, sees a grotesque caricature of a Jew on a propaganda poster, the creature comes to life and the youngster flees from it.

However, Lucian embraces his heritage, provocatively turning up at the town hall to demand the yellow star that Jews are required to wear by the collaborating regime. Later, when Lucien is being sheltered at a rural Catholic boarding school, the creature returns, this time as a comforting companion.

This prepares the audience for the main non-naturalistic device of the film: the presence of Gainsbourg's alter ego in the form of a sinister exagerrated puppet version of himself. 

This shadowy and sardonic presence acts as an Imp of the Perverse, pushing the shy painter Gainsbourg down an ultimately self-destructive path of scandalous transgression.

The second aspect of interest is the film's structure, which isn't very clearly defined, although I think that's probably something that's endemic to this kind of biopic: I felt similarly about the BBC's recent Lennon Naked.

My guess is that the makers of biopics – even ones tinged with fantasy and theatricality like Gainsbourg – assume that the audience just wants to be led through the key events of the subject's life – which might defy a conventional structural approach anyway. As Gainsbourg's life starts increasingly to unravel, there isn't really a way of tying things up neatly.

The film is as much an evocation of Gainsbourg's eventful life as it is an informative biography – something that Sfar admits by describing it in the titles as un comte (a fairytale). 

However, its energy, visual flair and performances – especially from Eric Elmosnino as the adult Gainsbourg – make it stimulating and enjoyable.

(One very sad note: Lucy Gordon, who played Jane Birkin in the film, took her own life in May 2009.)

World of Kane: Illustrations by Sfar 
The Skinny: Interview with Sfar

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