DVD Review: Gainsbourg (2010)
Sadly, I don't have an arthouse cinema in the area, just the usual couple of multiplex cinemas, neither of which chose to screen Gainsbourg last year. Instead, they to chose show 3D versions of third-rate Hollywood flicks. Shame really, as Gainsbourg really is the type of foreign language movie that really could have appealed to a broader audience. But is it the definite record of Serge Gainsbourg? We'll deal with that later.
But let's start with the movie itself. Directed by Joann Sfar and starring Eric Elmosnino as the man himself, it's effectively the edited highlights of Gainsbourg's life, from his earliest days as a Jewish/Russian refugee in Paris during the World War II, ending as he drives into the sunset with his final partner, Bambou, bizarrely the grand-daughter of General Friedrich Paulus of the German army on the Russian front. I'm guessing that's some kind of symmetry.
The earlier part of the story is undeniably strong, painting a picture of how young Lucien (the name before the name change) developed his talents and his persona. From his father's hardline piano tuition and the adult art classes (complete with nude models and German officers) through to the family's evasion of the German army. Running parallel to that is a portrait of a brash, confident, in fact fearless youngster making his way in wartime Paris, charming the ladies and impressing the boys in equal measure.
But he's not quite the confident young man he outwardly appears. Fantasy scenes show the 'shadow' of anti-Jewish propaganda following him round during the wartime years. While his alter ego (or Mr Hyde) La Gueule slowly takes hold, a comic book character with exaggerated features and a more destructive way of living life. No matter how much he tries to shake off the alter ego, he keeps coming back, especially when Serge is at his weakest.
But life goes on and success comes, not with the art as expected, but with the music, the songwriting and above all, with the women. The marriages come and go, as do the glamorous partners, both in a personal and professional capacity - France Gall, Jane Birkin, Brigitte Bardot, Juliette Greco - it's a who's who of the hip and cool of the era.
Of course, the music flows too, along with the scandal, the partying, the madness, the drinking and an endless stream of cigarettes. Thankfully we don't get too many 'staged' recreations (no Whitney Houston for example), but if you've got a broad understanding of the Serge Gainsbourg life story, you'll find most (but not all) of the boxes ticked or at least, given a nod.
In fact, it's one of the better biopics I've seen - and trust me, I've seen some bad ones (the Beach Boys one always springs to mind at this point). But there's something that stops me raving about it.
Sadly, the end doesn't quite live up to the start. Part of me wishes the film threw more meat onto the bones of the early stages of life and ended it there. Instead, the movie drifts rather than drives towards the end. OK, maybe Gainsbourg's best years were over when the '70s kicked in and as such, maybe there's only so much to play with. But you do feel there's a 'peak' around the time of his early relationship with Jane Birkin (played by Lucy Gordon, who sadly committed suicide during post-production), with a steady decline after that. His last relationship, for example, just feels tagged on in an attempt to add some balance.
Or maybe I'm just being a little too critical. Please, don't let that put you off picking up or catching Gainsbourg, because it's a film that will keep your attention from start to finish, even if one end is stronger than the other. If you're a fan of the man, you'll lap it up, but even if you're not, you'll be fascinated by a life genuinely lived.
One thing I haven't really mentioned though - the role of Eric Elmosnino in the title role. Absolutely brilliant. At times, you'll think you were watching a well-made documentary rather than a movie, such is the physical similarity and the charisma he brings to the role. Born to play the part you might say.
If you're a fan, this is essential, but even if you are not, Gainsbourg is a movie that will have you glued to the screen for over two hours. Like Gainsbourg himself, it's not perfect, but like the man himself, it has an unmistakable charm.
The DVD also has additional featurettes - interviews and making of. The trailer is also on the disc.