French Jewishness is key to understanding Gainsbourg film
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French Jewishness is key to understanding Gainsbourg film

Eric Goldman writes and teaches about Jewish cinema. He is president of Ergo Media, a distributor of Jewish, Yiddish and Israeli film.

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Eric Elmosnino as Serge Gainsbourg in “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life.”

Attempting to paint the story of a life on the canvas of cinema is no easy task, even for French comic book artist Joann Sfar. What Sfar brings to cinema is an appetite for maximum utilization of the arts and the presentation of biography in as different and non-linear a fashion as possible. The subject of Sfar’s film is Serge Gainsbourg, a singer, artist, and composer who is probably best known here for writing and recording the late 1960s song “Je t’aime … moi non plus” (I love you … me neither). The sexually charged song, complete with heavy breathing and X-rated lyrics, was banned in several countries and caused quite a stir when Gainsbourg and actress and lover Jane Birkin recorded it. Anyone who was older than 5 at the time remembers this song and how it filled the airwaves.

Born Lucien Ginsburg, the Paris-born child of Russian Jewish immigrants, Gainsbourg was used to being different. In fact, the film opens with a prologue showing young Lucien being rejected by a girl on a beach as “too ugly.” As a youth in Nazi-occupied Paris, he was deeply affected by the notion of being the “other” and by the requirement to wear a yellow star that accentuated that distinctiveness. This and the fact that he had to go into hiding during the war profoundly affected him. Writer/Director Sfar shows a youth comfortable with his Jewishness yet struck by the reality of being ostracized. Lucien rushes to police headquarters to be first in line to receive his yellow star and wears it proudly, boldly parading past the anti-Semitic posters that line the streets of Paris. In many ways, Sfar is portraying not only young Lucien during the war, but all Jews in France today who are finding it harder to be openly Jewish in an increasingly uncomfortable climate. Sfar forcefully captures these feelings as he inserts Gainsbourg’s alter ego, “La Juif de la France,” a somewhat grotesque “Jewish-looking” caricature, into the film. The interchanges between the two and Sfar’s cinematic treatment of the youth during this formative period provide some of the most meaningful and insightful moments of the motion picture.

Gainsbourg wanted to paint but he wound up as a chanteur, playing the piano in cabarets. The songs he wrote soon caught the attention of producers and he began to perform, touring with such luminaries as Jacques Brel. Gainsbourg soon showed a predilection for musical innovation and, as his fame grew, his public love affairs drew attention. The most famous of these was with actress Brigitte Bardot, for whom he wrote his famous “Je t’aime … moi non plus.” Sfar playfully and artistically shows us the creative process of Gainsbourg’s music-making as the two frolic and together create and record what was the first version of the song. But soon after, Bardot blocked release of the song, fearing it would harm her career and marriage. Gainsbourg later rerecorded it with Birkin. The film tastefully takes us through the various stages of his life and the women with whom he shared them. Gainsbourg became the master of the French pop song and, while holding that title, he also quickly became known as France’s provocateur and bad boy.

Filmmaker Sfar, whose mother is Ashkenazi and father Sephardi, seems aligned with Gainsbourg. Like the subject of this film, Sfar is a highly talented Jewish musician and artist who has worked in several media. It is French Jewishness that seems key in fully understanding this film. The young Sfar emulated Gainsbourg, and this recounting of a modern myth is his first feature film project. Sfar mixes fantasy with reality and creates a film that does not follow classic film narrative style. If you like unconventional films, then you are in for a treat. But make no mistake, this film is bold and takes us on a very different path than most film biographies.

Eric Elmosnino as Gainsbourg is exceptional, and he is supported by the highly talented Lucy Gordon and Laetitia Casta. The film opens on Aug. 31 at Film Forum in New York City. As for Sfar, the multi-talented writer/director just completed the adaptation of his graphic novel “Rabbi’s Cat” as a feature-length animated film. It opened in France in June, so keep your eyes open for its release here.

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