Joann Sfar. the French comic book artist who created “The Rabbi’s Cat” and “Dungeon” and has been a key contributor to publisher L’Association since its earliest days, recently made a leap into filmmaking with “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life,” a not-quite-a-biopic fantasy tale of French singer Serge Gainsbourg’s life filled with the sort of imagery that’s made Sfar’s printed work so enduringly popular.
A real-life account colored with strong shades of magical realism, the film peeks into Gainsbourg’s life as it was shaped by both his success and the various women he consorted with. It has the same general feel as Kevin Spacey’s Bobby Darin biopic “Beyond the Sea,” only with a much stronger, more coherent narrative and imagery that straddles the line between surreal and disturbing.
This is thanks largely to Sfar’s artistic collaboration with the same effects team Guillermo del Toro used on “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and to GDT favorite Doug Jones’ acting contribution as Gainsbourg’s heavily made-up alter-ego, Dr. Flipus. Sfar explained in a recent interview with Comic Book Resources his love of del Toro’s work led him to reach out to the filmmaker as “Gainsbourg” came together.
“First of all, I wanted to make a movie,” Sfar told CBR News. “After 20 years of making comic books, I wanted music in my movie. I wanted a musical because I felt the beat of music helped me get the new medium because it would put me into a pattern. And then I wanted puppets.
“I had seen ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and I wanted Guillermo del Toro to work with me, so I got in touch with [him] and we got very friendly,” Sfar continued. Casting Jones grew out of this friendship, as did Sfar’s hiring of “Pan’s Labyrinth” effects and makeup vets David MartÃ, Pablo Perona Navarro and Xavi Bastida.
Sfar’s artistic talents helped the team he assembled bring his vision to life. “To make the creature, I started with a drawing of what I wanted to do, then the prosthetic people provided me with many solutions for creating that puppet,” Sfar said. The end result is a mix of prosthetics and digitally-enhanced imagery, with Jones’ physical performance at the core.
Gainsbourg was a draw for Sfar as a subject because of the impact the singer had on him as a child growing up in France. “I remember when I was young, [Serge Gainsbourg] was the only funny guy on French TV. He was always talking about sex, always showing off beautiful women, and he was smart. He was kind of a mix between Dean Martin and Johnny Rotten from a French perspective,” Sfar explained. “Coming from a boring, observant Jewish family, having this Jewish guy dating Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin was kind of the audacity of hope for me. He was a good character.
“Everyone told me that the family of Gainsbourg would never accept the movie because they always said no to all projects. I don’t know why they said yes to my project,” Sfar continued. “Maybe because I said it was a fairy tale and it would be a tribute, not a biopic.”
Genre isn’t really a concern for Sfar. Whether he knows it or not, he’s among a new school of filmmakers — Quentin Tarantino is a great example — that toy with genre conventions without ever confining a narrative to a single genre. “Gainsbourg” tells one complete story, but is all over the map in terms of the methods used to help that story unfold.
Sfar’s background as a fan of film was a boon during production. During our chat, he frequently name-dropped greats like Sergio Leone, Federico Fellini, Francois Truffaut and Tarantino. Some might watch “Gainsbourg” and see shades of Jean-Luc Godard’s more surreal French New Wave efforts peeking in, but Sfar is quicker to credit his love for Leone as a primary influence.
“Sergio Leone has a huge influence on me in the way [he puts] music very loud and uses strong pictures, never fearing the ridiculous or [putting] too much emotion into something,” Sfar explained. “Forget about Serge Gainsbourg being an existing character and pretending I invented the guy, to find ourselves in something more light. Shooting everything on location but pretending it is production design. Like shooting on the bank of the river Sienne but bringing 300 kilos of lights in order to have everything looking fake. This would be our meter.”
Sfar also credits his love for musicals as a key influencing factor on the film. “I love musicals. I love [Vincente Minnelli’s 1951 film] ‘An American in Paris,’ and [‘Gainsbourg’] was a good way to question what remains of the French hero,” Sfar said. “What can we do with this cliche of the macho who kisses the woman on the bank of the river Seine, those kinds of stories.”
In the end, it ultimately comes down to working around genres to tell a story while keeping things fresh and surprising, an approach that reverberates strongly throughout the film. “What I love is the way you don’t manage to do something [when you work with genre],” Sfar said. “What I love in Quentin Tarantino is the way he doesn’t manage to do a Sergio Leone movie. Should he manage to do so it would not be interesting, in my perception. I love when a storyteller acts, I don’t love when they think. You work with shock. You cannot say why people will remember a picture book. It’s not about storytelling, it’s about being shocked by some picture.”
Sfar admits he had a little help in putting together the script, though from an unlikely source. Gainsbourg passed away in 1991, but much of the film’s dialogue — at least for the lead character — is built from the singer’s own words.
“I wrote the whole script with sentences from Serge Gainsbourg,” Sfar explained. “I took all the interviews he made and I wrote the script through his sentences. So everything I say in the movie, they may be lies, but they come from him.”
There’s also the very strong feeling in the story that Gainsbourg’s life was shaped most by the more significant relationships he carried on with the various women in his life. Sfar admits this was a focus for him in building the story.
“I love the idea of depicting an extremely macho character and trying to have a story that will be appealing for the female audience,” Sfar said. “The idea is, he would love to be Don Draper, but he’s just a Russian Jew, so all the women are stronger than him. Especially when he meets Jane Birkin and he’s older than her, but it’s obvious that she will lead the relationship. That makes him very appealing in my perception.”
“Gainsbourg” was Sfar’s first film effort, though he quickly followed it up with an animated adaptation of his book, “The Rabbi’s Cat.” It is something he hopes to eventually bring to the United States, but there are no plans for domestic release at the moment since these kinds of imports take time to cultivate.
Not waiting around for anyone else, Sfar has already moved on to something new. “My next project is [the animated feature] ‘The Little Vampire’ and I am working with John Carls, who was a producer for ‘Rango’ and ‘Where the Wild Things Are.’ We are finishing the writing of the script now and we are already starting on the production process.”