Film review: Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (MFF 2011)

Gainsboug: A Heroic Life
Gainsbourg: Vie héroïque
One World Films, Studio 37, Focus Features International, France 2 Cinema, Lilou Films, Xilam Films

STARRING Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Doug Jones, Sara Forestier
PRODUCED BY Marc du Pontavice, Didier Lupfer

SHOT BY Guilliaume Schiffman
EDITED BY Maryline Monthieux
MUSIC BY Olivier Daviaud
DISTRIBUTED BY Universal Pictures, Music Box Films / Focus Features, Optimum Releasing

Screened at the 2011 Milwaukee Film Festival

“Shoot the Pianist”

I had a brief dalliance (that would be the word) into Gainsbourg’s smoky, smegma-laced miasma some years ago and, well, then it ended. Admittedly, if I spent more time lounging around nude female forms, and smoking indoors, and inebriating myself like a past-his-prime dictator, sure, I could see myself listening to more Gainsbourg. “Life’s my oyster! ..and such a delicious one.” Come to think of it, that doesn’t sound so bad. Wait – why did I stop listening to Gainsbourg in the first place..? Ah yes, I turned 23.

Once upon a time, in Nazi-occupied France, an adolescent boy named Lucien horned and puffed like the sagacious future archetype of Smarm he would become by age 60 (minus the deposed-celebrity sunglasses). Skip ahead past this largely useless nostalgia to Eric Elmosnino tickling the ivories in nightclubs, mumbling and stumbling and liking girlflesh, and doing a very good job of acting like a dirty French pop star. Skip further ahead to see Serge record some songs, play some songs, get down with Brigitte Bardot in a hotel room with a view of the Eiffel Tower while he sits naked at a piano and she dances around him cutely. It may be the most French scene I’ve seen. Then Serge gets older, makes some more songs and gets involved with Jane Birkin, who is played by Lucy Gordon, who took her own life during the film’s post production. So, we’ve got Serge aging, aging, and we’re still kinda waiting for the story to go somewhere… one can’t meander for his whole life, can he? And it’s over. Oh, and a large Gainsbourg Muppet follows Elmosnino around for the entire film. Really.

Unless the definition has been altered to include hedonistic bedlam, I do not see what about Gainsbourg’s life was remotely heroic. And I like Gainsbourg! At least I once did… do I care anymore? I enjoyed Gainsbourg’s “thing” for a while… but then I realized that cigarettes, booze and sex were not to be the throughline of my life. It seems like Gainsbourg and Godard may have been responsible for the dopey French prejudices of regular old Americans – Godard representing the “pretentious black and white art film where people just sit around smoking” and Gainsbourg representing the foul filthy philanderer. It’s no fun to see Gainsbourg’s life turned into a highly commercialized kind of Broadway pop performance, complete with giant walking puppets and a wimpy cartoon opening credits sequence – Gainsbourg sold as the boozy philanderer for the family.

Gainsbourg never comes against any challenges to his way of being – it just always sort of works. He’s just sort of groovy. He just wants to, like, you know, stroll around, groin first, and play the piano, man, and bed the joiles filles that show up or don’t show up, man, you know, it’s all good. Mmm, let me get back to tickling the ivories… mm come here, baby, sit next to me. Yeah, baby. Sometimes a life can just be about love and pleasure, did you know that, baby? Mm, it’s true. Take it from me: Monsieur France. I’d say this film is worth seeing if you are in your early 20s, currently love Gainsbourg and the whole France/60s/sexy young artist epoch thing, and are not fanatically particular about how your time is spent. Those outside that range may be left wondering where they missed the point.

written by David Ashley