An interview with Joann Sfar: the director of 'Gainsbourg'


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The Independent Culture

"Ugliness is in a way superior to beauty because it lasts."

Growing up as a Jewish boy in Nazi-occupied France, Lucien Ginsburg, as he was then called, had an overruling awareness of his appearance which he deemed ugly. He spent his life seducing beautiful women and provoking his audience to bask in their adoration. Joann Sfar discusses his cinematic debut ‘Gainsbourg', which follows the life of the controversial French singer who found international fame with hit "Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus".

Sfar describes how growing up in France meant it was very difficult not to be aware of Gainsbourg: "He was the only Frenchman who had an attitude on national television. He was so appealing to kids because he was always drunk on stage, always harassing people, always rude, always mentioning sexual stuff and yet very intelligent at the same time. It was obvious he was more intelligent than all the other people around and all the French kids fell in love with him. Also his fragility was so obvious you wanted to get close to him. It's the guy who makes who feel like you want to grow up because you want to get drunk with him. And you feel it's so good to be a grown up when you see him – course it's a lie because when you get to be a grown up you're disappointed."

The singer had a very public problem with alcohol and famously asked friends to bring him cigarettes in hospital straight after his first heart attack. As a father himself, it's curious as to whether Sfar would mind his own children looking up to a similar sort of role model: "Oh I would not because he was kind of a harmless person actually. He did harm to himself but not to others. I'm not sure French kids are into that kind of thing today, it's a very different country and I'm afraid today's kids are much more classic, they are craving classic behaviours and structure, yet when I was a kid we wanted to break every structure - it's a different situation I guess."

Gainbourg's most famous venture was releasing the overtly sexual "Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus" with his then wife Jane Birkin. The song was banned from radio play in several countries across Europe, but remained a big commercial success. The role of Jane Birkin was played by Lucy Gordon, who contacted Sfar after hearing they were casting for the role, and was offered it after 500 girls had already been unsuccessful. The day before she was supposed to appear in Cannes, the 28 year-old tragically committed suicide.

"The whole editing process was tainted by what happened to Lucy and I did my best not to be sad whilst editing, but some pictures are impossible to be seen for me. We dedicated the movie to Lucy not only because we love her, but because the whole movie has been tainted by the grief we had. I don't have any sad memory of Lucy; we just have the joyful moments. Because a lot of time she came on stage even when she didn't have to. She came with her parents, with her dog, with her friends. She was the only actress who gave me a gift at the end of the movie, she gave me a Turkish string instrument. I had her on the phone the day before she died and I was in Cannes festival and she was to join me the day after. She told me I just have to change my hair colour and I will meet you tomorrow, but there was never any tomorrow for Lucy."

"She always underrated her works and she was so wonderful, she was some kind of Katharine Hepburn to me, not only the kind of woman men fall in love with, it's the kind of woman women like."

Birkin and Gainsbourg's daughter Charlotte was originally intended to play the role of her late father in the film, but it proved to be too painful for her. Previously to Sfar, others had approached the family about making a movie about Gainsbourg, but something about Sfar's take on the story appealed to them:

"They said I brought a legitimacy because you bring an artistic look to another artist, so this will be not journalism or enquiry, this will be a tribute to his works more than his life. I've been reading quotes from his life and so it's not an enquiry, it‘s a dream about his fantasies. The movie's full of crap, but it's his crap. If I met him in a nightclub and he would tell me about his life although I'd know many things are fake, but he said this, so everything we did come from his fantasy. I gave them watercolours and maybe the comic book was fun to them. I claimed to make a show and to make a musical about Gainsbourg, not to make an enquiry about his life. I'm very grateful to them letting me make it."

Primarily a renowned graphic artist in France for 20 years with over 200 books behind him, Sfar had to make a challenging transition to cinema. In graphic novels, he describes: "I'm very familiar with comic grammar so it's very easy for me to break the rules and to break the grammar, whereas I'm a new born in cinema and its very different to learn a new language. So I tried to use that I have this fascination. My taste in cinema is ‘An American in Paris' or films by Alfred Hitchcock. I don't love the movies about real life, I want a movie to look like a movie."

Like his comic novels, the surreal plays a vital role in the film. An anti-Jewish poster comes to life, and his alter ego, La Gruele, manifests itself in the form of a puppet that influences Serge to misbehave.

Fantasy is an integral element in Sfar's work: "It was very hard to impose on the production and I have to confess I had to change my script as there were monsters till the end and it was completely forbidden by the producers as they told me French audiences expect a realistic end, because they know the old Gainsbourg. So I'm sorry I accepted that because I love puppets everywhere. I cannot imagine making a movie without magical or fantasy element to it. French audiences don't respond well to this, they like realistic stuff. My next movie will either have to be English spoken or international."

Sfar speaks about film-making very much as a learning process for him. He's very modest about the film, and despite critical acclaim in France remains focussed on improving.

"I'm not proud of my movie, I'm happy with my movie because I've started to learn something. I love the idea of having to learn how to write a movie. The difficult part is writing a script as it is different from a book. When you're writing a book you can work like a painter, by pieces, but in movies there is a dynamic something I haven't mastered yet. But I don't want to learn scriptwriting from Hollywood who would break my balls definitely. It's like you try to have sex and someone explains how it's possible. But I know I'm not good and I know I have to learn, and learn my way."

Gainsbourg is renowned in Europe for his many affairs with women, and in particular, his illicit affair with Brigitte Bardot. She was the original counterpart to Serge in ‘J t'aime', but pleaded with him not to release their recording of the song as she was married. Played by Laetitia Casta, Sfar always had her in mind for the role:

"She is the only French diva we have, she behaves like a star, she expects many strange behaviours around her. She took my script and threw it at the wall and obliged me to read the autobiography of Bardot which, believe me, was a kind of pain in the ass. So it's wonderful to work with her because you find yourself working with a legend. Like Gainsbourg she can be so charming and so rude in the same moment. We had a dance teacher for the piano scene, because I wanted a very precise moment of her dancing on the piano, and she told me "OK, you want me to give the audience a hard-on? Please fire the dance teacher." So that's what we did."

Casta was four months pregnant during the shooting and even the crew were completely unaware. "We had so much fun when we knew we were filming a mummy. We are very happy as both her and myself felt like we are tricking the audience they did not know she was pregnant."

Having been very familiar with drawing women, the difficulty in portraying women in film for Sfar, was making the audience fall in love with them, "I've tried to understand how to film them not only to have them beautiful but also to make the audience fall in love with them. This does not go through psychology or scriptwriting, it goes through moving a camera and choosing a place you put it and it's so different from drawing. Bardot used to say about Gainsbourg, she said "He makes me feel beautiful", which is so strange from Bardot but she was mentioning some kind of respect, something that goes beyond the appearance."

Gainsbourg once said "For me, provocation is oxygen." And he did not disappoint. He wrote a song for the 16 year-old singer France Gall called "Les Sucettes" (Lollipops), which featured lyrics full of sexual innuendoes she was originally oblivious to. His most shocking act was the culmination of years of provocation, when he released an offensive reggae version of the French national anthem La Marsaillaise. The public response caused such a furore that one paper in particular called for his citizenship to be revoked.

The actor that took on the challenging role is Eric Elmosnino, and reticent to play the character as he is a highly regarded stage actor in France. "He doesn't give a damn about cinema and he didn't give a damn about Serge Gainsbourg so it was wonderful for me because he was so liked and so elegant, whereas other actors would've taken Gainsbourg as a burden. For him it was same as if the character was imaginary. He say "OK so you want a French lover? Lets invent a macho type, who thinks he's ugly and wants so many women to make him love himself and he will never manage to love himself and he will make every relationship a fumble. And he will be so French. That perception - being gross in one moment and elegant in another one." I think Eric grabbed it very well in a very tragic and comic way."

"I don't like a movie to try and heal a character I don't like movie to bring a redemption neither to the audience nor to the character, and I definitely don't like movies that try to save a character. When serge misbehaves I don't like to give him excuses but I love him because of his misbehaviour. You never will find in the movie and criticism of alcohol or smoking or misbehaving with women. I depict the character and the audience is smart enough to think about it."

Having studied Philosophy at university, Sfar's works tend to feature philosophical undertones: "All my stories are tainted with moral issues - not that my stories are guided by morality but by always putting my characters in a position, in a dialectic form, this is something I'm compelled to do."

His children's books don't paint a pretty picture of the real world, but instead open their eyes to the potential tragedies in life. In summing them up, he says his stories deal with "Fantasy and sex and death. I've been doing many books for children but they all depict a world tainted by adult behaviour so most of my characters are children that have to observe the world. They need to build an image of the world, we need to tell the drama they can face."

His second film is an animated picture taken from his comic book "The Rabbi's Cat" and will be released next year. It tells the story of a cat that gains the power of speech after swallowing a parrot, and converses with a Rabbi who teaches him the ways of the Torah.

The surreal is integrated into Sfar's work and in the case of Gainsbourg, helps to show the audience his inner conflict. This element of fantasy allows the film to break from the realms of a typical biography, and leaves the audience making their own minds up as to whether they've just witnessed the story of a tragic star, or a troubled hero.