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"Gainsbourg"- Review and Interview with Director Joann Sfar

By Rebecca Connell

Gainsbourg- a film by Joann Sfar

Starring: Eric Elmosnino, Anna Mouglalis, Laetitia Casta, Lucy Gordon, Mylene Jampanoi.

Produced by: Marc Du Pontavice, Didier Lupfer

UK Release date: 30 July 2010

Biopics - They had quite a moment. For a while there, it felt like not a month could go by without another film being made about a “legendary musician or singer". Don’t get me wrong, There were some great ones amongst them- Ray, Walk the Line, La Vie en Rose -  Oscars were won… and I enjoyed watching them, I did, but they rather tended to follow the same formula: Young gifted musician, traumatic childhood event, lucky break, great success, followed by a speedy descent into drug fuelled frenzy, mostly ending in tragic untimely death…

Now, there is nothing wrong with this formula, it obviously works well- it makes for good viewing, the public laps it up- but it does somewhat take away from the element of surprise and novelty that a film can usually deliver. So, with what might be called a slightly jaded/cynical attitude, I wondered unenthusiastically over to the screening room, lunch in hand, to watch “Gainsbourg”, the latest biopic on French music legend Serge Gainsbourg.

Two and a half hours later, and I still hadn’t eaten my lunch. This is an indication, a very good indication, of how much I enjoyed the film.  

So it is that the next day I trotted over to the French Institute rather more eagerly to meet the Director, Joann Sfar. There is always a bit of apprehension before interviews: will they be pleasant? Talkative? Will they give interesting answers? Am I going to have to painfully drag it out of them? Happily, I was advised upon arrival that, if I had any important questions I should get them out as quickly as possible as he was “a talker”. Obviously this is always good to hear, but the pressure was none the less on as I had only ten minutes to interview this man, which just didn’t seem enough to talk to the person responsible for  Gainsbourg.

Armed with a piece of carrot cake and a coffee, I went into the room, and started what was to be a short but highly interesting meeting with the artist. I say artist because, like his film, Sfar is difficult to fit into a box. Gainsbourg is his first feature, and he has taken a rather unconventional path to get to it. Starting first as a philosophy student at the University of Nice (from which he graduated with honours), he then took classes with Jean-François Debord at the School of Fine Arts in the Morphology department in Paris. He is known, first and foremost, as one of the leaders of the “new wave” of comic book art and has created award winning animations and novels (the Rabbi’s Cat received an Eisner award). I am also told in his press release that he plays the ukulele, the mandolin and the harmonica. Knowing this, I am pleasantly surprised to find that, instead of being a slightly pretentious French philosopher/artist type, Sfar is actually an incredibly friendly, engaging and passionate interviewee.

The first thing I want to know is: why Gainsbourg as a subject for a first film? Tackling a national legend is not the easiest task at the best of times (the English equivalent would be for someone to chose McCartney, or Bowie) but, munching calmly on his cake, he makes his task sound easy:

“I wasn’t particularly ambitious with it. A lot of my friends had already made films. I didn’t want to be left out. I chose a subject that would interest me enough to spend 3 years on it and one with which I could indulge my passions: music, pretty girls…“ So Sfar, so French...


Gainsbourg performing
Gainsbourg performing

But this is no small scale first film: To call Gainsbourg a biopic is to put it into a box too little for its size. Joann Sfar has succeeded in taking the traditional genre much further than that: it is, as the title at the beginning of the film will tell you “a fairy tale”. This means that, unlike other films that would fit under the “biopic” heading, it does not content itself with a blow by blow biographical account of Serge’s life. It is, as Sfar says, a narrative: “It is not a historiographic or an anecdotal film. I did not want to make a “realistic” film. I wanted to create something more like a Russian fable, a modern legend”.

I don’t have much experience of Russian fables, but I can certainly say that it has nothing of realism about it. Sfar’s artistic training is visible throughout. The film is almost expressionist in its imagery:  visually stunning, it is filled with colour, imaginary

Flipus: Gainsbourg's alter-ego who follows him throughout the film

Flipus: Gainsbourg's alter-ego who follows him throughout the film

creatures,constantly alternating between reality and dream, truth and fiction.   We are taken into the world that Gainsbourg created for himself, the myth that he created for others. It makes for fantastic viewing but it is not exactly historical. Personally, not knowing that much about Serge’s life story, I lap it up, but I wonder whether some fans will find this blurring of fact and fiction disconcerting. As a fan himself, Sfar has a different attitude.

“ I don’t want to go around delving into his personal life to discover who he really was. I couldn’t care less about the truth. I love Gainsbourg too much to bring him back to the realms of reality… I want to make a cult film, not a journalistic account of his life.”

His passion for the singer is palpable throughout both the film and our interview. . Even to a non-fan, this was a fascinating man, and Sfar’s enthusiasm for him is contagious. Never having particularly liked his music before, I found myself completely drawn to him, swept up in his weird distorted world. And I wonder why this is, because he is not the most charming or handsome or pleasant person, he is even, on occasion, given to acts of cruelty. So in what lies his appeal?

In Sfar’s opinion, it is his heroic quality. To him  “He is more heroic even than Superman, in the sense that the Greeks understood it, because a hero is someone who suffers and gets knocked down, but will still grab burning coals with his bare hands.”

And boy does he suffer: Gainsbourg is known for his Lothario ways, he is the famous “French Don Juan“ , but here, starting with the very first scene where a young Serge asks to hold his friend’s hand, only to be answered “no, you’re too ugly”, we see him battling with crippling insecurities. He is a man obsessed with his physique, his “ugly mug” as he put it.


French Don Juan
French Don Juan

Sfar explains this further: “Yes, he truly hated himself. All the stories we use in the film are maybe not true, but he told them all. I really based myself on them because, whether true or not, they said a lot on the image he had of himself.”

Part of this image was without a doubt influenced by his childhood as a Jewish boy in occupied France. There is a fantastic surrealist moment in the film where we see the little boy strolling down the street only to be confronted by an enormous propaganda poster with a monstrous caricature of a Jew. It’s an ugly face that resembles him a bit too closely for his liking, a face “pinned up to be seen and scorned by all”. He attempts to run away from it, only to have it suddenly come to life, popping out of the wall and following him down the street. This monstrous creature will follow him throughout his life, becoming his shadow, his curse, but also his inspiration, his only companion: his alter ego.

I find it interesting that, considering the war period obviously had such a great impact on Gainsbourg, Sfar chooses to barely focus on it.
“Yes, but that was not my subject, my subject was a little boy who didn’t have the slightest idea he was Jewish because in his family there is no religion, and all of a sudden the French police call him in to give him a yellow star. So here we have a particular case of a boy who sees himself as entirely French, who sings the Marseillaise as he walks down the streets, being assigned his Jewish identity by the French administration.”
So this is what Gainsbourg has to come to terms with: The national legend has to grasp his French identity. And he does so by completely redefining it when 50 years later he brings over Jamaican musicians to re-make the Marseillaise.


Re-working the Marseillaise with Jamaican singers
Re-working the Marseillaise with Jamaican singers

This, Sfar says, is one of his favourite things about the man: his political attitude where “after such a traumatic childhood episode, instead of harnessing resentment against the country in which he grew up, he declares a love story with France… He puts an incredible amount of energy trying to get is hands on the original manuscript of the national anthem, and even though his restaging of it with African musicians could be seen as deliberately provoking, I see it as a declaration of love to French culture. He may appear rebellious, anarchic even, but contrary to what people believed, he wasn’t doing it just to p*** them off, he always wanted them to love him for it afterwards.”

And we see this internal struggle throughout the film: always swinging between his detached couldn’t-care-less attitude, and his desire to love and be loved, to connect with others. One scene in particular illustrates this: at one point,  Gainsbourg is asked to teach a Sephardic music lesson to children who have lost their parents in the concentration camps. At first, he refuses to do so, gruffly saying he really can’t be bothered. Finally coaxed into it, we see him hesitantly strike a few notes on his mandoline. Bit by bit, the children join in on their instruments and he begins to play faster and faster, completely swept up in the traditional Jewish music. At the end, he looks around him at the children with tears in his eyes, overwhelmed by it all. It is incredibly moving and I tell Sfar that it is one of my favourite moments of the film.

“Mine too! He taught at that school for two and a half years… I felt it was an important moment, we decided to put up all the original poems and drawings that the children had made, so that even we were all crying by the end of it. He never spoke of politics, always pretending to be an old punk who didn’t give a sh**, but he spent two and a half years in that place; I don’t believe it didn’t have an impact on him, that it didn’t influence him in some way…”

What is amazing is that this incredibly troubled man somehow went on to net some of the most beautiful women of his time. For Joann Sfar, the turning point was his love affair with Bardot.


With Bardot
With Bardot

He finally felt he was allowed to love beautiful women once he had the sex symbol “in his button hole, as it were, even if it was an affair that only lasted three months and which wounded him enormously. It is after that, that he allowed himself the happiness he had with Birkin, probably because he felt he was finally worth something”.

Ah, Jane Birkin. I am not ashamed to admit that, going into the film, I knew much more about her than Gainsbourg. I tell Sfar that for a lot of Brits, the singer is actually

Jane with Gainsbourg
Jane with Gainsbourg

mostly known for his relationship with her. He doesn’t seem convinced, asking me whether the English really know who she is. I try to explain to him that she is a style icon, a sixties pin-up, she even has an Hermes bag named after her for crying out loud: of course we know who she is! But what is interesting is getting this new look at her, seeing her not as the cute little English girl who went to Paris only to be seduced by the “French don Juan”, as he says, but as a woman of strength and character. We see that she is the one who truly launches him onto the music scene, redefining him, making him change his clothes, his hair… women, surprisingly for a story that revolves around one of France’s famed adulterers, women are actually quite empowered in Sfar’s re-telling.

“This is what I wanted: the story begins in the 1940s, with all the clichés of painters and models, and bit by bit the female characters become more and more active, more in control. We see them taking power over him very easily because they have other weapons.”

Unfortunately, just at this moment, a woman comes in to tell me that my time has run out, but Sfar graciously gives me one last question.  Having seen “Gainsbourg” and now having heard him talk about it, it is, without a doubt, a highly personal film. For a man to have had such an enduring passion for the singer, I wonder if it is because he identifies with him?

“Oh no, I’m not as nuts as he is. I don’t think I’m like him at all. Gainsbourg was both very fragile and very cruel to those he loved. He fascinates me precisely because there is so much in him I don’t understand: his brutality, how unbearable he could be- admittedly I can also be unbearable, so maybe we have that in common… but then again I suppose most artists do. We want to be loved by the public, and we sometimes confuse the love we are allowed to ask our close-ones for with the love we expect from the public. Inevitably that can lead to disasters, inevitably we wind up alone at some point because of it."

There is a line in the film where , on the subject of Gainsbourg’s creature that follows him through life, he says “all poets have a double”. The intricate and ambiguous relationship between man and demon is one that Sfar seems to understand very well.

“Obviously; it’s to do with hating the world so much that you invent an imaginary friend to talk to all the time. All the scenes in which Gainsbourg can’t sleep etc, they are all pretty intimate things that I’m showing. But I’m not the only one, I think everybody is a bit like that, we all have little voices in our heads. I don’t think it’s a demon so much as a need to be constantly in dialogue. It might make us do stupid things, but it also gives us energy… And from a purely practical point of view, I wanted the imaginary character in there because I love puppets, and I wanted some in my film. I love animatronics and all of that larger than life imagery. Had it been up to me I would have put a hell of a lot more in, but I was told that the French public would never buy it, that it was ridiculous…”

Well, I say that‘s ridiculous! If this is what he can create with restraints on, why on earth are we holding him back? And with that tantalising information, the interview is ended.

No doubt about it, Sfar is one to watch.


Watch trailers:

· Gainsbourg



22/05/2013 - s.pollock-hill said :

I was lucky enough to meet "Gainsbarre" in the famous Bar Noir with Jose Arthur of the ORTF with Jane Birkin.
There are few musical geniuses but he was one; probably the most important French musical figure of the last half of the 29th century, a real giant- le beau Serge!


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