2009 was a good year for biopics: An Education, Me and Orson Welles, Public Enemies, the two Mesrine films and Coco before Chanel.
They try to teach us something of the subject and world by focussing on landmark events (Welles’ version of Julius Caesar) or key moments that shaped the life of a character – Mesrine’s military service and daring crimes.
France seems to be gripped by a fever for biopics with Mesrine and Chanel. Now we have Gainsbourg.
The film follows the life of Serge Gainsbourg from his childhood in Nazi occupied France through to his blossoming dominance of French music relationships and his marriage to Jane Birkin.
What the films in the first paragraph have is a stunning central performance capturing elements of the characters. They were also the director’s get-out-of-jail-free cards. The performances were memorable and covered any uneven/undeveloped elements in the film.
Which is not to say the others are bad films just that the writers’ and directors’ never captured the full complexities of the characters just moments. Gainsbourg feels much more like a life thus giving a sense of the man. Gainsbourg uses the whole film to illustrate just who the man was, his characteristics, strengths, weaknesses and how they informed his actions.
The film was exciting, imaginative and light-hearted. It captured Gainsbourg’s genius and the burning desire and uncertainties of the creative process. Thus there are moments of self-doubt and a lot of drifting as he tries to find what defines him, be it his great art or music.
Speaking of music, these elements were like time-capsules charting the change in fashion and tastes and the different people singing or inspiring the music. Each piece of music was enjoyable to listen to and the accompanying scenes were delightful to watch whilst also serving to reveal his work.
The film was also unafraid to show him at his weakest especially when he faded from relevance. As the film ran out of events the movie slowed but it felt like a natural closing as opposed to creative inertia. That is to say, I think the film was pitch perfect guiding me out after an exciting time.
As for performances, they were universally great. But Eric Elmosnino as Gainsbourg was compelling and Lucy Gordon was stunning as Jane Birkin conveying brittleness, playfulness and beauty. Her loss deprives us of a truly great actress.
The director, Joann Sfar’s performance was adroit. Period details looked stunning and the CGI characters were fantastic though reminiscent of Pan’s Labyrinth – genuinely disturbing because they subvert the human form, cleverly using anti-Jewish images witnessed early on and playing on Gainsbourg’s own self-perception.
I knew very little about Serge Gainsbourg. I now respect him and French pop music. If nothing else, this biopic taught me something and that’s the least a film can do.