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Being Serge Gainsbourg

Being Serge Gainsbourg

Joann Sfar probes the Jewish identity of the French singer-songwriter-actor-provocateur, animatedly so.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

It’s entirely appropriate that Joann Sfar’s first two feature films, “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” (which opens on Aug. 31) and “The Rabbi’s Cat” are all or partly animated.

Judging by his demeanor in a Midtown hotel last week, Sfar is very animated himself. From the moment he enters the room, he is bubbling with good humor and bonhomie, engaging with a photographer (“You have to make me look handsome, you know”), and just plain happy to be present.

The 39-year-old Sfar is probably best known for his graphic novels (although he is happy to call them “comic books”) like “The Little Vampire,” “The Rabbi’s Cat” and the wonderfully titled “Sardine in Outer Space.” But recently he has expanded his purview to include motion pictures with “Gainsbourg” (2010) and the film version of “Cat,” which played this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

For Sfar, the transition to filmmaking was a natural one.

“That’s how I write,” he says, “I do a storyboard. And the film crew sees me as another technician, so there’s a dialogue possible. I know that a drawing is nothing like a movie; I tell them, ‘This is my idea, but you can sharpen it anyway you choose.’”

Sfar seems to be very comfortable in his own skin. He might not say it explicitly, but one senses that his fascination with the French singer-songwriter-actor-provocateur Serge Gainsbourg has something to do with it.

“I remember seeing him on TV when I was a kid,” Sfar recalls. “He was a mix between Dean Martin and Johnny Rotten; he dated Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin. I remember thinking, OK, there’s hope for me, because this guy is a funny-looking Jew, but look at him.”

Gainsbourg, on the other hand, was anything but comfortable being himself, and that is the main subject of Sfar’s film. Gainsbourg had one of those so-ugly-it’s-beautiful faces and a voice that towards the end sounded like French singer and actor Gilbert Becaud gargling battery acid. In the context of his work, he created for himself a number of alternative personae and that cue gives Sfar the inspiration for a number of animated alter egos that alternately haunt and inspire Gainsbourg (brilliantly played as an adult by Eric Elmosnino). He is followed through childhood by a bouncing animation of an anti-Semitic caricature he spots in Nazi-occupied Paris. He is guided and mocked by La Gueule, an alternate personality who tells him bluntly, “You play piano better at night,” inspiring him to pursue a cabaret career. He encounters a talking cat and other cartoon characters throughout the film.

The biopic is the most hidebound of film genres, and Sfar shows great courage in dismantling it in his very first film. His original casting for Serge was Charlotte Gainsbourg, the singer’s daughter. She was sympathetic but finally opted out because the family history would have been unbearably painful to reexamine.

“My perception when Charlotte left was that the project was finished,” he says. “I didn’t want a carbon copy of Charlotte.”

Then he met Eric Elmosnino, who is almost exclusively a stage actor, and the two had an immediate rapport. They agreed that Gainsbourg should be treated “as it he were a fictional character,” an approach that freed the actor from the tyranny of Gainsbourg’s all-too-familiar public image.

That public image centered in part on Gainsbourg’s Jewish identity and, inevitably, that subject is integral to the film.

“Provocation, that was his whole attitude,” Sfar says. “How did he become a Jew? His parents didn’t like religion, but when he was ten years old in Paris the anti-Semitic laws were passed and he was forced to wear the yellow star. Later, when he was famous and having an affair with Bardot, he practically announced it, it was if he had won a medal. My grandfather [who was a rabbi] once said, ‘Anti-Semitism stops the moment you enter a hotel room.’”

Gainsbourg was never shy about forcing the question. He made a reggae recording based on “La Marseillaise” that stirred up angry denunciations from right-wing politicians and veterans groups.

“The scandal came from the idea of this old Jewish boy and a bunch of black musicians performing this patriotic song,” Sfar says. “But afterwards he was loved even more by the French people. He was the most beloved singer and public person in France, the exact opposite of the ‘hidden Jew.’”

Sfar is anything but a hidden Jew himself. Most of his books and both of his films are rich in Jewish material. He describes himself as the product of an intermarriage: his father’s family was Sephardic, and mother’s family was Ukrainian Jewish.

“All of my characters are Jews,” he says emphatically. “The rabbi in ‘The Rabbi’s Cat’ is not drawn from my family. But I love the idea that I’ve gotten French audiences involved with the issues of an Algerian rabbi. They’re sitting there for two hours watching a cat and a rabbi engage in pilpul!,” referring to a Talmudic debate.

One thing that Sfar has learned from making two feature films is that, given a choice, he would rather do live action than animation. It’s simply a matter of patience, he explains.

“When I do a comic book, I can do five pages a day,” he says. “But a [film] animator can only do about 30 seconds a day. That’s too slow! It’s like going in reverse!”

Despite that, Sfar’s next project is an animated film of “The Little Vampire,” and he seems to have found a comfortable second home as a director.

“I have always wanted to be an absolute dictator,” he says with a sly grin. “When I found out that the North Korea job was taken, I chose filmmaking.”

“Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” opens on Wednesday, Aug. 31 at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.). For information, call (212) 727-8110 or go to

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