Cigarettes and alcohol. And then some more cigarettes. Gitanes et l’alcohol. And women. And then some more cigarettes.
‘There’s a trilogy in my life, an equilateral triangle, of Gitanes, alcoholism and girls.’
Notorious throughout his lifetime and still controversial to this day the whirlwind and contradictory life of Serge Gainsbourg (originally Lucien Ginsburg) is difficult enough to unravel as it is without having to shoehorn it into the two hour biopic format. The biopic has been a high profile addition to modern French film, occupying the higher budgets and the widespread distribution. It’s easy to see why – selling the culture – the French dream – is, if anything, more real than Hollywood selling the American dream as the French ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity are championed through its flawed icons. It is these flaws, these childhood hardships, that make the recent films so compelling – the Edith Piaf of La Vie en Rose (2007), the fragile yet spunky Coco Chanel of Coco Avant Chanel (2009). Gainsbourg is different though his life no less interesting. Indeed the mythology surrounding him eclipses in many ways those of Piaff and Chanel – those seem like Dickensian rags to riches stories with pasts hidden from the upper echelons of society that seek to woo them, Gainsbourg comes across more as Noel Gallagher meets Klimt in a jazz club.
The difference is that Gainsbourg decides that any attempt to tell the truth (beyond a few facts) is irrelevant. The director states at the end of his film (spoiler alert although you’d have guessed this by about two minutes in) that Gainsbourg’s lies are more interesting than the facts – ‘I much prefer his lies to his truths’. Although basically following its anti-hero’s life in a linear fashion the film constantly harks back to war torn France where the defiantly non-Jewish Russian Jew Lucien Ginsburg boasts about his sexual conquests even as he imagines them in his mind and in his drawings/paintings. Precocious bravado permeates his protestations of lustful encounters to his pre-pubescent friends, all while puffing manfully on numerous cigarettes that makes this possibly the most tobacco intensive film since the 1940’s. Needless to say, our young whippersnapper wastes none of his time as a struggling artist trying to convince young, often leggy/busty/both, women out of their clothes in the name of his art. So far, so segue to Paris. There, of course, the young artist is free to sow his wild oats, which he does – shock – in Dali’s Paris apartment and starts to live the life of a Bohemian. The only thing keeping him in order is his ‘mug’ – a mocking caricature of himself, part Devil incarnate, part beak-nosed Jewish hatred figure, part Nosferatu eared vampire – a long-fingered call to decadence that Gainsbourg falls for – initially. He’s a constant figure in the film, Gainsbourg’s grip on reality and redemption are mirrored in this figure that seems like the devil from Murnau’s Faust. Gainsbourg views the past through a lens of earlier colour schemes and, even when the period detail isn’t strictly right, it feels right, despite its freewheeling through the ages and personalities at a speed that does nobody any real justice – there’s Dali’s bedroom, a weekly jam with Django Reindhardt, an apartment fire, rejection of art, discovery of pop, desire for jazz, family upheavals, an affair with Brigitte Bardot, massive lapses in time and so on. Wives come and go, so do children.
Ultimately Gainsbourg works as a film – it’s a fictional biography of a complex and controversial man filmed in a way that doesn’t hide his flaws. It tempers this with a framing device that places the film in the realm of fiction – of a biography imagined as it might have been rather than as it was. Debut director Joann Sfar has produced an assured and intelligent film, full of period style cinematography and occasional scenes of artistic flair, of a troubled man whose musical reputation probably doesn’t live up to his persona. If there is a fault it lies in the need to put so much of his life in such a small space. Sex, cigarettes, and drugs, cigarettes, rock, cigarettes, jazz, and roll (and cigarettes).
Je t’aime? Gitanes?