To Serge, With Love

20100728_2010+30film_wRyan Gilbey in The New Statesman:

Like a rebellious child lashing out at its parents, only to return to the fold in its hour of need, Joann Sfar's film Gainsbourg enjoys a fractious, push-and-pull relationship with the biopic genre. Despite sharing crucial DNA, the picture makes quite a song and dance about differentiating itself from biopics gone by. Fortunately, it's a song and dance worth watching.

Like Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), Sfar has come to cinema from graphic novels. He brings to this adaptation of his book about France's grizzled and provocative singer-songwriter the visual conciseness demanded of a medium that has six or eight frames on a page, as opposed to 24 frames per second.

The film is live action, but its fragile reality keeps being overrun by cartoons and puppets, as though a fantasy world were plotting to overthrow the corporeal one. This may not be a new approach (it was used to moribund effect in Pink Floyd: the Wall), but it is undoubted ly dynamic. An animated credit sequence, in which Serge Gainsbourg soars over the rooftops of Paris and paddles past fish with Gitanes dangling from their mouths, serves notice that we are not about to watch The Great Caruso.

Should the message still not have got through, the portrayal of Gainsbourg's childhood in occupied France sets us straight. These early scenes are dominated by a yellow-eyed, four-armed, anti-Semitic caricature that tears itself free from a Nazi propaganda poster and confronts young Lucien Ginsburg (Kacey Mottet Klein). If the creature, which resembles a Weeble experimented on by a deranged scientist, is a parody of Lucien's Jewishness, it's one that the boy cheerfully rehabilitates. Discovering that the monster imitates his movements, he breaks into a jerky pantomime to see if it will follow his lead. When it lies in bed beside him, it represents nothing more threatening than a highly impractical teddy bear. In such ways do we see Lucien (later Serge) first neutralise the hostility of others and make a virtue of what the film refers to as his “ugly mug”.