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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Serge Gainsbourg and the Lolita Syndrome
by Donald Levit

An icon at home less known here than actress-singer-songwriter daughter Charlotte, Serge Gainsbourg is the subject of “new wave” comic book artist, animated filmmaker and novelist Joann Sfar’s Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life. Twenty years ago his death at sixty-two stirred France. President Mitterand likened him to their nineteenth-century poets, and, a eulogy delivered by Catherine Deneuve, his Montparnasse funerary block was loaded with cartons of Gitanes while upstaging those of the world-famous reposing there.

For the “much more than a simple ‘biopic,’ [rather] an almost expressionistic film,” the director’s own script posits a dual nature for his countryman Ashkenazi Jew, a creative whole, nevertheless, in an “exact opposite of a reconstitution of the facts.” Careful not to be confused with Aznavour though he sings that rival’s chansons to women, the notoriously homely painter, small-time jazz musician, pop superstar, composer, film director and provocateur -- his reggae “La Marseillaise” figures in -- beds and is bedded by unknowns as well as star femmes fatales of the ‘sixties.

He is not exactly “haunted” here by his boyhood under the Nazis, which is the prologue. But he, or the camera, often reverts to that child in short pants he was, Lucien Ginsburg (Kacey Mottet-Klein) the wisenheimer and ladies’ man beyond his years, ubiquitous cigarette already in his lips as he walks a beach or urban streets followed by the bulbous-headed caricature come from an anti-Jewish poster of the Occupation.

Film and director-writer have won awards at home and abroad, as has Eric Elmosnino for his portrayal of the insolent yet winsome title hero, who also displays unheroic traits as lover, boyfriend, husband, father and son. This unadmirable side is boldly worked in as a grown-up aberration of the above caricature head, an outsized ego’s other self with impossible nose and ears -- which Serge himself assumes on one occasion, while in another he is his 1976 album’s “The Man with the Cabbage Head” -- a doppelgänger tempter called the Mug (Doug Jones) who both panders to self-centered desires and tempts the insecure other half of the manchild.

The twin pulls are women and music, the former growing younger for “that old jerk,” the latter ranging from guitar, piano and a raspy spoken-singing to Kingston, Jamaica, sessions. Ruining his health with four packs of smokes a day and -- not really shown -- alcohol, he ran with the musical time and tide, in collaboration or solo, from jazzy cabaret to commercial Europop and 1965 Eurovision, from classical inspiration to orgasmic scandal singles to concept albums to social consciousness. The sounds here are not original tracks “artificially superimposed” but, that “all should be in harmony,” mostly reworked and re-sung within the film.

The lead personality is vulnerable yet pushy -- and irresistible to the ladies, coming at them, or come at by them, from all quarters, some lovers and others merely molded by him. Following a first marriage to a fellow painter his lyrics cruelly were to call a Hippopodame, there came his left-bank beatnik period of liaison with pursuing singer-actress-musicians’ muse Juliette Gréco (Anna Mouglalis), starting on her lush red couch. Then an intense idyll with Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta), whose very presence lights up his amazed parents Joseph and Olga Ginsburg (Razvan Vasilescu, Dinara Droukarova) but who tearfully must end it on account of her millionaire playboy husband of the moment, Gunther Sachs. (During the affaire Serge and BB make a few ‘60s hits.)

There are piles of love letters from fans, a Lolita lollypop phase with France Gall (Sara Forestier), and then the British period with young divorced mother Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon), who converts him from sartorial elegance to jeans, three-day stubble and longer hair. This lover, too, will leave, half-sister daughters Kate and Charlotte in tow, when he drunkenly dissects the mounted Professor Flipus skeleton that has long adorned his place.

Picking up another young woman, junkie “Bambou” (Mylène Jampanoï, as Caroline Von Paulus), after “I screwed up too much” with Jane, Lucien Ginsburg-become-Serge Gainsbourg continues his self-destruction. The story is wise to offer no reason for it: the poetic temperament, perhaps? Rosebud-like, the recurring vision of childhood? or the split personality of the genius saint and sinner that is man?

(Released by Music Box Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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