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Robert Wright for The New York Times The director Joann Sfar. This scene, some five minutes into Joann SfarGainsbourg: A Heroic Life , signals that the movie, opening Wednesday at Film Forum, wont be your standard biopic. But then Mr. Gainsbourg, who died in 1991, is not your standard biopic subject. He is best remembered in the United States, if at all, for Je TAime … Moi Non Plus , recorded in 1969 with his girlfriend, the British actress Jane Birkin .
But in France he is a towering culture hero whose American equivalent is impossible to conjure: a chain-smoking, alcohol-fueled singer-songwriter with the musical importance of Bob Dylan, the literary reach of Leonard Cohen, a chain of romantic conquests to rival Warren Beattys and the smutty, provocative persona of Howard Stern. The movie, which won a Csar (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for best first film, touches on all these facets, taking Mr.
Gainsbourg from his encounter with the Nazi poster 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.
It was the reckless, intemperate, Mug-influenced Gainsbourg who first caught the attention of Mr. Sfar, well known in France as the creator of popular comic books and graphic novels. Growing up in Nice, Mr. Sfar, 40, watched the tousled, unshaven and often drunk Mr. Gainsbourg regularly appall television talk-show hosts. When I was a kid, Mr. Sfar said in fluent English picked up from years of playing Dungeons & Dragons, Gainsbourg was the only French person on television with an attitude.
He would be a mix of Dean Martin and Johnny Rotten. I come from a very observant, boring Jewish family, and when I saw this Jewish-Russian guy who had dated Brigitte Bardot and who was with Jane Birkinthe queen of England in my perceptionI thought, ˜Maybe there is hope.Â Although his admiration deepened as he came to know Mr. Gainsbourgs music, Mr. Sfar clearly still identifies with his bad-boy sidewhat self-respecting comic-book artist wouldnt? During a recent visit to New York, the witty and loquacious Mr. Sfar presented himself as something of a naughty child, an image rooted, he suggested, in the fact that when he lost his mother before turning 4, he was told that she was on a trip and would return only if he didnt misbehave. By the time he was 6, he said, hed realized that it was useless to behave and maybe also to believe. Drawing and storytelling became his outlets. A great fan of movie monsters, he recalls cutting their pictures out of newspaper articles as a child and then redeploying them in film scripts of his own devising. Frankenstein was always a good guy, he said. And all of them were Jews, of course. They were persecuted. It was a monster of sorts that inspired the Gainsbourg project.
The first thing I did, even before writing, he said, was call the crew of Guillermo del Toro, who had just made ˜ Pans Labyrinth . I said, Im going to write something that will involve your work. The whole point was to make a movie with them. The American actor Doug Jones , who was the eerie faun in Mr. del Toros movie, underwent five hours of prosthetic makeup every day to morph into the Mug. Mr. Sfar noted ruefully that his creature was left out of the French trailer.
They feared it would frighten the audience, he surmised. But its essential to me. Mr. Sfar said that he prizes the contrast between Eric Elmosnino, the French stage actor who won a Csar for his scrappy, realistic performance as Mr. Gainsbourg, and Mr. Joness stylized turn as a guy from a Murnau movie. Mr. Sfars regard for F. W. Murnaus expressionism informs Gainsbourg in other ways. Most of it was shot on location, but I did my best to make the whole movie look like a fairy tale, he said. We put lights on a dolly, and we moved it during the shots so we would have big moving shadows, like in Murnau. Mr. Sfar said that although it was his first time on a movie set, he felt comfortable with the crew because of the technical side of comic books. And, he said, I fell in love with all the actors. One of them, Laetitia Casta , was initially reluctant to take on the role of Brigitte Bardot. Shes such an icon, Ms. Casta said by telephone from her house in Corsica. I didnt think I would be able to do it. And I didnt want to do a caricature. So she called Ms. Bardot, who encouraged her to say yes and offered behind-the-scenes coaching.
Romancing Ms. Casta, Lucy Gordon (Jane Birkin) and Anna Mouglalis ( Juliette Grco ) was easy, Mr. Elmosnino said by telephone from Paris. But finding Mr. Gainsbourg took some effort beyond just learning how to sing. Speaking in French, he said the key was realizing that the character was Gainsbourg and also Joann and also mea three-headed monster. The monster embodied by Mr. Jones had become just another colleague to Mr. Elmosnino by the time the shoot ended. Playing opposite the Mug seemed normal to me, he said. But I think it takes the film to another place that I find really interesting and poetic and very true to Gainsbourg. Mr. Sfar said that was his intention, even when the film departs from the known facts. The Gainsbourg family asked me to say that the whole movie is totally fiction, he said. But every sentence in it comes from Gainsbourg. Its filled with lies, but they are his lies.
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