"A little bit of phantasmagoria and a lot more 'And-then-he-fucked…' grungy glamour, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is at its best when its mythologizing is carnal and infused with cabaret, and not making the inflated claim of its title." Bill Weber in Slant: "Writer-director Joann Sfar, a comic artist adapting his own graphic novel's version of the life of French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, generally eschews staples of the musician biopic like stage-performance recreations and studio-session drama. His focus is first on the artist as a boy in Nazi-occupied Paris, born Lucien Ginsburg (Kacey Mottet Klein), wearing a yellow 'Juif' star with poise and already cultivating his interests in art and women, and then how he fashioned himself into the roguish seducer personified in the 1960s hit-making persona of salacious Serge (Eric Elmosnino, a near-lookalike with the requisite lascivious panache and curled lip)."
Sylviane Gold opens her New York Times piece on the film, which opens Wednesday at the city's Film Forum with an image of the young Gainsbourg "sauntering through Occupied Paris when he pauses before an anti-Semitic poster. In a moment its hideously caricatured Jewish face jumps off the wall to chase him down the street." Gainsbourg traces the life from this encounter "through the 1980s, by which time he has made love to several famous and beautiful women, had a heart attack, incited several controversies and fathered two children (the actress Charlotte and the musician Lulu). These events are accompanied by his increasingly eclectic pop songs and punctuated by regular visits from the Mug, a sinister-looking alter ego who offers assistance, advice and now and then a little shove in the wrong direction."
This "puppet alter-ego" is "a trial" for Melissa Anderson, who writes for Artforum: "To be fair, there is something admirable about Sfar's tinkering with the biopic, one of the most hidebound of genres, even if it involves a voluble creation that looks a lot like Sesame Street's Count von Count. But this conceit seems even more misconceived when it becomes clear that Gainsbourg is just another paint-by-numbers retelling. After abandoning his ambitions as a painter, adult Serge (Eric Elmosnino, who uncannily resembles the singer), focuses on the chanson, his arrangements and clever lyrics eventually earning him a private audience (and more) with hep lady cat Juliette Gréco (Anna Mouglalis), who popularized his composition 'La Javanaise' in 1963. Most of Gainsbourg unfolds as a series of clichéd encounters lasting no longer than a 45 A-side between the libertine and the women who made him more famous," in particular, Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) and Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon).
Michael Guillén interviews Sfar, who, "either alone or in collaboration with other artists, has created over 150 comic books, some novels and animated films, amongst them a prize-winning video clip for the rock band Dionysos… He is best known in the United States for his children's books, Little Vampire Goes to School, which was on the New York Times best-seller list and Little Vampire does Kung Fu! (also nominated for an Eisner Award in 2004). Sfar is currently adapting Little Vampire Goes to School into an English-language 3D animation feature. He has already adapted his award-winning graphic novel Rabbi's Cat (co-directed with Antoine Delesvaux) into a feature length animated film which was released in France in early June and features the voice of actor Eric Elmosnino (star of Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life)."
Natasha Stagg talks with Sfar, too, for Bomb: "When I ask him about daughter Charlotte's place in the film, he says, 'My perception is that he clearly managed to have a daughter that was in love with him, and no one can name the damage that can do.' Charlotte worked on the film for six months, learning the role of her father, before the terrific Eric Elmosnino was cast. The experience was too much for her, and she backed out, says Sfar." He also tells her "that Bardot worked closely with Casta, but now denies ever knowing about the filming of Gainsbourg. Birkin apparently said, after reading the script, 'Serge would be happy, but I will be sad, so I will not see your movie.'"
Earlier: Reviews from the UK.
To Los Angeles. As part of its France Goes POP! series, Cinefamily will be screening the documentary Didier Varrod and Pascal Forneri made for French television last year, Gainsbourg and His Girls, from tomorrow through Friday.
Back to Charlotte. Her Terrible Angels EP is released next week, "a precursor to Gainsbourg's forthcoming double-LP of live and unreleased material, now titled Stage Whisper, which will be released November 8," notes Pitchfork. "It features 11 live tracks and seven studio tracks." And here's the video for the title track of the EP, directed by Nathalie Canguilhem.
Updates: Eric Kohn interviews Sfar for indieWIRE.
Another note from Pitchfork: "Last night at the Hollywood Bowl in LA, artists including Beck, Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear, Victoria Legrand of Beach House, Zola Jesus, Mike Patton, and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt honored French pop luminary Serge Gainsbourg with a tribute concert." And they've got videos of Beck and Gordon-Levitt.
Updates, 8/31: "Far less conventional than the international hit La vie en rose (Edith Piaf) but in no way as daring as I'm Not There (Bob Dylan), [Sfar's Gainsbourg is] basically a fantasy of Gainsbourg's life," writes the Voice's J Hoberman. "Still, for all the 40-year-old filmmaker's interpolated animations and puppets, for the insouciant, slapdash tone that characterizes his graphic novels, and for his protagonist's proclivity for scandal, the movie is too timidly conceived by half."
"Despite the attention the film pays to the divide between the man as the ungainly, loving second-gen immigrant versus the boozy provocateur, it's not a portrait of much psychological depth," agrees Alison Willmore in Time Out New York.
For Sfar, notes Vadim Rizov at GreenCine Daily, "Gainsbourg seems to matter most as an icon who never bored the public. This sex-dazed figure and drunken anti-establishment warrior is something of a Hemingway-esque caricature, hunting for notoriety rather than big game. This Gainsbourg isn't necessarily always the one of public record, but he's the one of the albums: a compelling cartoon of outsized dimensions, too entertaining to get upset with."
The AV Club's Scott Tobias: "Though he covers a great deal of biographical territory, Sfar doesn't put together a coherent picture of Gainsbourg, who seems to recede further from view the more time the film spends with him. He becomes a VH1 casualty, falling into the one-size-fits-all formula for grandiose musical flameouts."
Updates, 9/1: "You wouldn't know it from Joann Sfar's Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, but cinema played a crucial part in French musician Serge Gainsbourg's life and career," begins Gustavo Turner in the LA Weekly. "Aside from some passing references to his first encounter with girlfriend/muse Jane Birkin on the set of 1969's Slogan (a groovy slice of middle-aged male insecurity), there are no mentions of Gainsbourg's three packed decades as hardworking soundtrack composer, character actor and — on four gloriously eccentric occasions — writer-director…. Gainsbourg's musical career spanned from his early stints as a cabaret piano player in 1958 to his death in 1991, and his film career was almost as long-lived."
Slate's Dana Stevens and Jody Rosen have begun an email exchange on the film.
At Dangerous Minds, Richard Metzger considers "The Most Ridicously Phallic Music Video of 1966."
Update, 9/2: Jane Birkin for Newsweek: "After that we went off to Venice, and that's where I fell head over heels. He took away all the pain of it having not worked with John Barry, and I think I helped him get over Brigitte Bardot and her leaving him…. I've never gone into why I left him. He was somebody who drank a vast amount. It started out being funny the first 10 years, and then it got monotonous. After I left him, strangely enough, he wrote the most beautiful and best songs he ever wrote for me."
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