It's hard to find an equivalent to French singer/songwriter/provocateur Serge Gainsbourg in American society -- he's part Bob Dylan, part Dean Martin, and part Johnny Rotten. He managed to get a teen pop star to sing a double-entendre-laden song about lollipops; he got a pair of international movie stars to orgasmically moan for two versions of the song "Je t'aime… moi non plus"; and sang a duet with his daughter about incest. And yet when he died in 1991, President Francois Mitterrand described Gainsbourg as "our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire." The French recall his passing of a heart attack in the same way Americans might recall Kurt Cobain's or John Lennon's; it was a moment of national mourning.
Twenty years later, Serge Gainsbourg seems to be going through something of a renaissance. He had a tribute show at the Hollywood Bowl last month, featuring the likes of Beck and Sean Lennon. A documentary called "Gainsbourg and His Girls" -- which centers around Gainsbourg, who was more charismatic than handsome, and his numerous gorgeous lovers, including Brigitte Bardot -- is making the rounds on the film festival circuit. And, now, Joann Sfar's surreal biopic, "Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life," hits the silver screen in the States.
Near the beginning of Sfar's movie, a young Gainsbourg (born Lucien Ginsberg) just received his yellow star of David from the Nazis and is walking down the street of occupied Paris when he comes across a grotesquely anti-Semitic propaganda poster. The Jewish caricature -- egg-shaped with a prominent nose and four little dangling arms -- comes off the wall and stalks the lad. Later in the movie, Gainsbourg finds himself debating with The Mug -- the singer's suavely menacing alter ego, who looks like a cross between the ugly Nazi caricature and F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu. Clearly, this isn't a normal biopic.
Sfar first made his name as a cartoonist, and that influence is clearly evident in this movie, from the striking imagery to the use of animation and puppetry. While the film suffers from many problems biopics run into -- compressing six decades into two hours ain't easy -- it's a fascinating love letter to France's dirty, old man of pop.
Also opening this week: Sion Sono is probably the most underrated Japanese filmmaker out there these days. He's probably most famous in this country for his 2002 hallucinogenic horror flick "Suicide Club." But to truly get a sense of this filmmaker's talent, you need to see his magnum opus, "Love Exposure," which, after four years, is finally getting U.S. distribution. The movie is a mesmerizing rift, edited at breakneck pace, on religion, porn, true love, Japanese cinema, and, of course, up-skirt panty photography. Sure, the movie is four hours long, but it's the fastest four hours you are likely to spend.
Check out this clip from 'Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life':