Film Review: Gainsbourg

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(Gainsbourg, Joann Sfar, France & USA, 2010, 122 minutes)

‘I’m the man with the cabbage head. Half vegetable, half man.’

The weird and wonderful Gainsbourg is Joann Sfar’s feature debut. By adapting his graphic novel the story becomes a highly enjoyable and witty moving picture. Joann Sfar paints a portrait of the French musician Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991), reflecting his strong dependency on sex, cigarettes and alcohol. We see the evolution of Gainsbourg from a disillusioned painter to a talented musician.

In the pre-credits sequence a young Gainsbourg is rejected by a girl on a beach for being ‘too ugly’.  The audience then see him walk past a Nazi propaganda poster that reads; ‘The Jew and France’, this triggers and creates the young boy’s complex with his distinctive features and overall appearance. The frightening image from the poster manifests itself into a large ugly humpty, dumpty caricature with several arms and legs and the figure chases the small boy down the street. This is Gainsbourg’s ‘mug’; its nose, ears and eyes are ridiculously accentuated to reflect the prejudices towards Jews during the time Germany occupied France. This disturbing childhood hallucination becomes very real when Eric Elmosnino takes the role of the French musician. The mug becomes an adult and it develops and mutates into a human representation of Gainsbourg, but still has a huge nose, long fingers and burning orange eyes. This older mug is a playful and confident character that encourages Gainsbourg to live more dangerously and follow his desires even if they are sinful. His mug becomes involved in every part of his life and appears when the lonely musician is having a crisis and wants to talk to someone.

The plot does not delve deep into the war and moves from the experiences of a cheeky child to focus on the adult figure of Gainsbourg. The mug gives Sfar a means to display Gainsbourg’s imagination and life in a theatrical way. It is not his aim to convey an accurate story of the Frenchman or of the war, his aim is to engage the audience more emotionally with Gainsbourg’s music.inflatable water slides

His ‘mug’ acts as his alter-ego, and becomes his conscience, haunting and indirectly encouraging him to take certain actions throughout his life. His mug has a laid back attitude, can be rude and appears to have a devilish personality, reflecting the sinful nature of Gainsbourg himself. Both of them wear a formal black suit and tie, however, his mug’s suit is grubby; its collar is loose and sticks up, showing it doesn’t take things as seriously as Gainsbourg. The exterior of his mug could also represent Gainsbourg’s need to become more loose and free with his music and relax a little more. He does seem nervous and a little hopeless until he sits down, lights a cigarette and starts to play the piano. His music gives him confidence and his lyrics give him a voice, but when away from that environment there are times when he doesn’t know how to convey himself confidently.

As the audience become more infatuated by the music so does Gainsbourg. He says, ‘That’s music’ after his improvisation performance in a smokey jazz bar. From this point the music begins to dominate each scene and Gainsbourg decides to take his music more seriously by collaborating with more and more people and seeing it as a money making opportunity.commercial inflatable bouncers

The resonating sound of electric guitars initiated the next part of the film to signal a change in attitude. Gainsbourg has grown his hair and now appears to have ditched his black suit and tie to wear all denim and cool sunglasses. His mug has disappeared and he appears to be a cool and confident character. His cavalier attitude results in drinking and smoking more, having affairs with beautiful women and ultimately becoming ill and hospital bound.

After some form of recovery we see Gainsbourg playing with his children. The three are operating on his mug who he gives the name ‘Professor Flipus’. He explains to his children that he had a brother who died before he was born and he’s felt that he’s watched over him since he was a small boy, this gives the mug another role to fill. The scene is quite disturbing as they play in the dim lit room in the middle of the night and Gainsbourg becomes very erratic and shoots Professor Flipus in the head, perhaps killing a part of himself.

Despite the film being witty and comical, it is bleak and melancholic. We see how Gainsbourg self destructs and loses a lot of important things in his life, the one continual element of strength is his music and as an audience we see him move from one genre to the next as he develops and evolves into different personas and lifestyles.

For someone who knows little about Serge Gainsbourg, I didn’t leave with more knowledge, but I did leave with a new found taste for his music and an appreciation for his peculiar and sharp lyrics.

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