Serge Gainsbourg, born Lucien Ginsburg in Paris in 1928 to Russian-Jewish emigrants, was possibly the greatest European cultural icon of the twentieth century, most widely known (and celebrated) for the songs he wrote for beautiful female singers. Not to mention the affairs he had with each of them. This French film follows the life and career of this cultural icon, including his troubled relationships, bouts with depression, and abuse of alcohol and drugs.
Just as celebrated in France is the writer-director Joann Sfar who is a comic book artist and musician. The animated opening of the film is all the work of Sfar. Throughout the film an animated version of Gainsbourg might pop up here and there. When we consider Sfar’s artistic inclinations, it becomes clear that he is the perfect candidate to explore Gainsbourg’s roller-coaster of a life and career.
The film opens with a boy and a girl sitting on a beach. Suddenly, the girl stands up and tells the boy that he is simply too ugly and she walks away. The boy is Lucien. We are introduced to a boy who painstakingly practices his piano under the watchful eye of this father. “Again,” he would yell at Lucien. At one point Lucien runs from his parents’ yelling to hide under an end table. From the protection of the table’s wooden legs, Lucien yells out his dislike of the piano.
The film then moves us to see a more confident, almost arrogant Lucien. On the day in Nazi occupied Paris when the Jews were to get their stars, young Lucien decides that he is going to be the first Jew in Paris to get his star. He arrogantly banters with the authorities, convincing them to let him in before they even open. Once he has his star, he walks down the hall, past the other Jews lined up to get their stars. In a film about a music icon where sound plays an important role, it is here in this moment that the lack of sound is powerful. The silence is deafening. The hardships of Lucien’s childhood become suddenly very real. The persecution, the suffering, and the oppression at the hands of another is unbearable to think of. The film does not dwell on this oppression, though; this one scene, beautifully done, is enough for the viewer to come to terms with the social context of Lucien’s childhood. Can anything good come from the Jewish ghetto of Paris?
As Lucien walks away from the building, he notices anti-Jew Nazi propaganda poster on the side of the building. In his second glance at the poster, the large, giant head of the Jewish man on the poster jumps out and walks with Lucien. This multi-legged, multi-armed head follows him around. They dance, they sing, they play together, and they read under a tree. This giant head of an imagery friend morphs into La Gueule, which means “the Face,” who is played by Doug Jones (probably known best as the faun in Pan’s Labyrinth).
This is when we know this is not any ordinary bio pic. In its French version, the film was given the subtitle, “un conte,” a fairy tale. A fairy tale, as it unfolds, that communicates to us the emotional texture of a man, rather than the literal play-by-play truth of his life.
La Gueule becomes a kind of caricatured idol of who Lucien wants to be. This long-nosed, big-eared, long, skinny-fingered, chain-smoking character seems to give Lucien the confidence in the areas of his life he seems to be missing it. For example, one night, drawing a story featuring La Gueule, and telling it to his sisters, he jumps up and begins to play the piano. It’s a song from his story. La Gueule jumps from the pages of the story and joins Lucien at the piano. Lucien plays like he has never played before. His fingers glide up and down the keys with no hesitation. His father, who at this point appears to be an angry man, shuffles down the hall, adjusting his glasses. Lucien, upon seeing his father, stops playing and awaits the soon-coming yellage. But there is none. His father says, “You do your best playing at night,” and encourages him to continue.
As Lucien grows into a well-known musician in Paris, he changes his name to Serge Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino). And his popularity soars. He begins to write songs for famous French singers. And despite his fears about his looks (which seems to haunt him for the opening scene), he seems to have no trouble attracting attention from beautiful women. The love letters from his female fans pours into his parent’s home. Gainsbourg begins to show signs of settling down when he meets the British actress Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon), with whom he would have daughter-actress Charlotte Gainsbourg. But the stability only lasts for a season. His popularity and influence continues to grow, his father passes, and then his dog. He seems to be sent into a downward spiral of self-defeat. His alcoholism and drug use increases. Even after his own medical crisis, he does not slow down. At least not until his death at the age of 62 in 1991.
Even in adulthood, during all of these up-and-down moments, La Gueule is there. When we first meet La Gueule at the piano he seems to be a Jiminy Cricket kind of character. He promotes confidence in the areas of Gainsbourg’s life that he himself does not seem to have. But, as Gainsbourg grows into adulthood, La Guelue takes on a different role. He becomes an anti-Jiminy Cricket. Instead of being the encouraging voice needed, he becomes the voice telling him to do the thing(s) he shouldn’t do. La Guelue is the face of Gainsbourg’s inner demons. And as such, Sfar has creatively depicted for us this internal struggle.
And yet, Sfar sees Gainsbourg’s life as heroic, as the English subtitle suggests. Maybe because while the songwriter lived deep in his own imagination, he did constant battle with his demons. He did not let the demons take over, and he did not let the demons rule. He struggled with them, giving us hope to battle our own demons.