One film at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival that no one seems to be talking about is Joann Sfar’s Gainsbourg, Je t'Aime... Moi Non Plus. Perhaps Gainsbourg’s popularity (as well as that of his ye-ye contemporaries) is not as de jure as it used to be. Once a cultural heavyweight on par with Kerouac and Fellini, his piano bar melodies, crooning voice and light jazz arrangements may no longer appeal to a generation whose purview doesn’t extend far beyond Paw Tracks and DFA Records. I personally can’t recall the last time I pulled out my France Gall or Jacqueline Taieb for stereo play. But, then again, I don’t find Godard’s first decade of filmmaking nearly as charmant as I did in my first year of college.
I was happily surprised by Gainsbourg, Je t’Aime (previously called by the much more pretentious title of Gainsbourg: Vie héroïque), particularly because of the maturity with which it handles such an immature subject. After all, this is the man who said he wanted to fuck Whitney Houston on live television. There are plenty of dirty jokes—from the young Gainsbourg expounding his own facility in drawing “pussy hairs” to the BBW fable of “L’Hippopodame” (“The springs creak under the hippopodame…”)—but the filmmakers give us the impression of ascending to the songwriter’s intellectual milieu rather than lowering ourselves to it.
Most Gainsbourg fans know that the sexual raconteur was born Lucien Ginsburg in 1928 and grew up in the midst of Nazi-occupied France. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Gainsbourg was marked early on by the rampant anti-Semitism of his motherland, which served the dual purpose of forcing the young boy into hiding as well as providing a reflection for his own self-perceived ugliness. A struggling painter who earned his living playing Aznavour hits in nightclubs, Gainsbourg skyrocketed to fame when he began arranging hits for pop lolitas Gall and Françoise Hardy. Most remarkable is the way in which, like Yellowman in Jamaica or Lou Reed in the US, Gainsbourg managed to transform his own sense of physical inferiority and marginal status as juif into one of France’s most notorious sexual icons. The film does a wonderful job of chronicling Lucien’s mainstream breakthrough in tandem with his own string of amorous conquests. Marveling at the charisma of the musician and the transcendent quality of star power, one easily overlooks the hooked nose and protruding ears in favor of the fingers’ sensuous rapping on piano keys. Similar to Perrault’s “Riquet With the Tuft”, here is an exceedingly unattractive man illuminated by the beauty of the women who love him, while managing to impart something of his intelligence to all and sundry that occupy his bedsheets.
The director-screenwriter and his muse were clearly meant for each other. Sfar, a graphic novelist by training, brings a sense of cartoonish grotesquerie to the man whose “Comic Strip” featured Bardot gasping an ecstatic refrain of “Shebang! Pow! Blop! Whizz!” This lack of subtlety is immediately apparent following Lucien’s eager and cheeky visit to acquire his yellow star from Nazi headquarters. Walking home down gray cobbled streets, he passes a poster with the words THE JEW AND FRANCE emblazoned above a hideous caricature of the Semitic intruder. Soon this bloated, rat-like visage comes to life as an enormous displaced head that follows Lucien on two pairs of human legs. The boy and his stereotype dance together, seemingly without concern for the grave political implications embedded in the leering parade float.
Of course, a biopic like this can’t succeed without actors to bring the man and his cohorts alive. At 136 minutes it can feel slightly swollen, but the stagings of such classic songs as “Bonnie and Clyde”, “La Javanaise”, and the scandalous Jamaican version of “La Marsellaise” more than justify the running time. Eric Elmosnino’s Gainsbourg is miraculous, perfecting the singer’s proto-hipster swagger and mannerisms while smoking through enough cigarettes to induce lung cancer in a normal human being by age 25. Sometimes-nude model Laetitia Casta brings the Barbie doll bawdiness of Bardot to life, while the late Lucy Gordon (who committed suicide last year at age 28) imparts to the English femme and second wife Birkin the tragic fragility of “La Décadanse” and the post-coital purr of “Je t’Aime… Moi Non Plus.” After the corpulent Jew-rat gives way to a new figure, the wily Jew of Gainsbourg’s maturity, the film is haunted by Doug Jones in a role known only as “La Gueule” —aka The Mug, a towering facsimile of Gainsbourg (Gainsbarre?) replete with hideously exaggerated hands, ears, and nose in the Nosferatu style. (With any luck, Siegfried Kracauer will be sending us missives from beyond the grave.) The double, while an obvious and perhaps tasteless symbol of Gainsbourg’s inner demons, adds a much-needed element of surreal whimsy to this hyperliterate film. Like I’m Not There but far better, Sfar’s work forgoes the truth of biography in favor of the lie. Modern mythmaking of Gainsbourg’s variety needs—nay, demands—the vast horizon of cinema, or what Rivette aptly called “the infinite stage of the universe.”
Gainsbourg, Je t'Aime... Moi Non Plus is playing a few more times at the festival, once tonight (4/29) at 3:00 PM and tomorrow (4/30) at 6:00. Tickets may be sold out, but show up an hour early for rush and you're likely to be seated. Village East Cinema, 189 2nd Avenue, between 11th and 12th Streets.