If anything, the late Serge Gainsbourg has become more of a cultural icon than ever in the two decades since his death. A songwriter, a singer, an actor, a writer, a painter, even an occasional director, Gainsbourg achieved great fame as a provocative symbol of rebellion against respectable life. He hit his stride as a singer and songwriter in the 1960s and 1970s.
And although he's not a household name outside France, there's been no shortage of tributes to Gainsbourg in this anniversary year, including an August concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Now comes a poetic big-screen portrait that uses actors, puppets, animation and all sorts of things you don't usually find in a biopic.
Perhaps that's because Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is the first movie directed by Joann Sfar, a French artist who has won many awards for his graphic novels — though "graphic novel" is a term he can't stand.
"Yeah, it means if you're a grown-up, you can buy them and not being ashamed," he says. "But they are comic book."
Sfar writes for adults, as with The Rabbi's Cat, in which the title character argues theology with his master. And he writes for kids; his Little Vampire series has the title character doing an orphaned boy's homework.
Sfar says his film Gainsbourg is not based on a graphic novel, even though you may read that description in many reviews.
"The movie's not taken from a comic book," he insists. Instead, he explains, he used comic book techniques to write the movie. "You could say my way of writing goes though drawing."
In fact Sfar says he used drawings to communicate with his production designers and director of photography. And he says he wants the audience to remember strong pictures, above all.
"I love [the] Russian way of storytelling, when you put strong picture close to other strong picture, and you expect the audience to do the job," he says. "So this would be comic books — and a kind of montage way of editing a movie."
Like his protagonist, Sfar came from a Russian Jewish background. In an early scene in the film, the boy Lucien Ginsburg — Gainsbourg's original name — walks down a street in Nazi-occupied Paris. He passes a poster filled by a grotesque face sitting on a globe, with the caption "The Jew and France." The anti-Semitic caricature hops down from the wall; now a huge puppet head with four legs and four wiggly arms, it waddles after the boy.
Sfar first became aware of Gainsbourg after the songwriter became a celebrity. Then a teenager growing up in the south of France, the young comic book artist knew Gainsbourg only from afar, and mostly from his infamously rude appearances on TV talk shows in the 1980s. The singer was like a mix of the Rat Pack guys and Johnny Rotten, Sfar says, and the young artist desperately wanted to get to Paris and meet his idol.
"You see, it was a Jewish man dating Brigitte Bardot — this was an achievement, in my perception," Sfar says with a chuckle. "And I have to say, the guy always made you feel it must be cool to get to [be a] grown-up."
The movie lavishes plenty of attention on the famous relationship between Gainsbourg and Bardot. As the iconic sex goddess of European film — the very symbol, for most Americans, of permissive Continental moviemaking — Bardot enters Gainsbourg's studio like Cleopatra taking Rome, asking a starstruck bystander down the hall to look after her Afghan hound. Gainsbourg and Bardot become romantically entwined at a grand piano, singing the new song he creates for her — "Bonnie and Clyde."
Gainsbourg is portrayed, and his are songs sung, by actor Eric Elmosnino, who won a French Cesar for his performance. (Gainsbourg's daughter, Charlotte, was originally cast to play her father but ultimately found it too unnerving.)
Filmmaker Sfar says Gainsbourg — who died just three months before his young fan arrived in Paris — was a man in love with France but also at odds with his country over its treatment of Jews in World War II and after.
"In his family, no one cared about religion," says Sfar, who himself comes from an observant Jewish family. "And then he's 10 years old, and French police calls him and give him a yellow star. So it's the strange story of a guy who became a Jew because of French police. And the dialogue I put in the movie is something Serge Gainsbourg had said many times: He wanted to be the first one to get the yellow star. When the cop tell him, 'Are you in such a hurry to get your star?' he answers, 'But sir, this is not mine. It is yours.' And this is so much him."
Sfar says Gainsbourg was subjected to lifelong anti-Semitism. In the film, the adult is shadowed even in his success by a larger-than-life caricature that he drew as a boy. Tall and hook-nosed, it's the metamorphosis of that vile poster that's always followed him, with a bit of sinister suavity added. The character, played by a man in a puppet's head, black tie, and claws, mocks his creator. His name is The Mug — or in French, "La Guel."
"La guel means a kind of ugly and sorry face," the filmmaker explains in earnest. "The point is, Gainsbourg was extremely sad about his face. He was sure he was ugly, and he was sure he looked like the anti-Semitic drawings. And this has been heavy on him, not only during World War II, but even in the '60s when his first records were made; there were titles in the newspapers that compared him to a rat or to a monkey. And this was a heavy burden to him. And he say, 'I've been creating a mask and I cannot remove it now.' "
Not that there's a lesson to be taken from any of this, apparently. Just as Sfar insists that his film is not a literary adaptation, he's just as sure it's not a biopic. That, to him, means a life story that teaches life lessons.
"I'm so grateful when a beautiful thing try to teach me nothing," he offers, almost as a weary provocation of the sort Gainsbourg might have uttered. "And it never occurs. You know sometimes movies seem to be like a medicine. ... I wish to be sad and I wish to be lost, and I desperately don't wish to be taught anything."
Yet Sfar has learned to like directing. He's already completed an animated version of The Rabbi's Cat. He's at work now adapting The Little Vampire and has written another live-action script — this one about 18th century slaveowners who hate slavery but love their luxuries.
Expect strong pictures — and a little work for the audience to do.