Friday, April 27, 2012

Jay's Movie of the Week #17: Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life

I still think the best thing about listening to his music is that even though I don't understand the words, I know the intent is to make you feel kinda dirty... 

Grab a pack of Gauloises and curl up with this bio-pic treat. Originally reviewed for DVD Snapshot.

Official Synopsis:

Renowned comic book artist Joann Sfar's Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is a completely original take on one of France's greatest mavericks, the illustrious and infamous singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg (Cesar winner Eric Elmosnino). Starting with his childhood in Nazi-occupied Paris, Sfar follows him all the way to pop superstardom as he romances many of the era's most beautiful women, including Juliette Greco, Brigitte Bardot, and Jane Birkin. Employing a witty, surrealistic style and a soundtrack of the musician's greatest hits, Gainsbourg: a Heroic Life is a quintessential time capsule to '60's Paris.

Our Take:

Gather 'round, children, and I'll tell you of a time when smoking was chic... and few smoked better than Serge Gainsbourg. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life captures the musician and legendary lover with his ever-present cigarette and unusual worldview. Reformed smokers and drinkers should approach this with caution, but fans of music (and drector Joann Sfar's style) may jump right in.

Through a childhood during the Nazi occupation to stardom as a gravel-voiced pop poet, Gainsbourg is presented as a sophisticated Lothario even in youth. First a painter (Sfar's own illustrations are used here), he grows to be one of the world's most popular musicians, thanks to his jaunty, unusual, and frequently frankly sexual songs. (There's a sly reference to the double-entendre “Lollipop” song, while “Je t'aime... moi non plus” gets a wittily uncomfortable airing.)
He tended to leave a path of burned bridges and self-destruction in his wake. Actor Eric Elmosnino captures the singer's self-destructive tendencies while keeping him a loveable rogue. He makes you believe this homely, conflicted, confident man could woo both the music world and his famous beauties. You also buy into his drunken decline and controversies.

The women in Gainsbourg's life smoldered as well. Supermodel Laetitia Casta makes for a luminous and pouty Brigitte Bardot even though her moves seem cribbed from Bardot's films. This famous fling, his children, and two other wives get short shrift, though. Jane Birkin, played by Lucy Gordon, is perhaps the great love of his life. (Many viewers will project a specter of tragedy on the performance as Gordon committed suicide before this film was released, but that shadow owes far more to the film's interpretation of their tempestuous relationship.) Less well-known to Americans is Juliette Greco, the singer and actress played by Anna Mouglalis, but you might well seek her out after this. In her brief role, she's a smoky man-eater as feline as her pet, who itself seems almost a familiar to her witch. He also frequently interacts with his own id, his fantasy “mug,” played by Doug Jones in a giant animated helmet of a head.

The actors (excepting Jones and his fantasy character) do a marvelous job of staying natural among the occasional flights of fancy. The songs, an omnipresent character in their own right, must be touched on, but their performances never stop the story. The flights of fancy? Occasionally precious, but never overwhelm the through-line of his life story. The major points of his life, marriages and children, come second to the depiction of the internal life of the artist.

Creative and playful, with Joann Sfar's illustrations come to life in brilliantly animated moments, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is a most unusual and original biography. Under Sfar's confident creative vision, this film captures a time, place, and style that's been stubbed out by the passage of time.

Also, the music is fantastic.

Audio & Video:

Gorgeous colors and crisp imagery in widescreen 2.35:1 makes Gainsbourg a beautiful watch. The audio presents the music cleanly and with surprising warmth. The music maintains presence even when the actors are clearly lip-synching.

Special Features:
  • Audio offered in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0
  • English Subtitles
  • Trailers
  • 10 minute behind-the-scenes featurette
  • A set of storyboards and character sketches by Sfar
  • Joann Sfar: Drawings – a second disc featuring a 43 minute television documentary about the director, (mostly focusing on his work as a famous French illustrator and cartoonist). Seemingly free-form, abut spiced up with nude models, dissected corpses, and scatological jokes.

An odd and sometimes uncomfortable mix of fantasy and fact, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is nevertheless delightful. A graphic novel come to life, and highly recommended.

Overall Picture:
Movie: A-
Video: A
Audio: A
Extra Features: B

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