Vox Tablet

Agent Provocateur

French singer and icon Serge Gainsbourg—once reviled and now beloved—is the subject of Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, the first feature film from Joann Sfar, creator of the Rabbi’s Cat comic book

August 22, 2011
Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin at home in Paris, 1970s.(Odile Montserrat/Sygma/Corbis)

Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin at home in Paris, 1970s.(Odile Montserrat/Sygma/Corbis)

Serge Gainsbourg was, depending on whom you ask, a brilliant songwriter, a buffoon, an outrage, a Don Juan, or the definition of French cool. To French comic book artist Joann Sfar, growing up in a strait-laced observant family in the 1970s, Gainsbourg—born Lucien Ginsberg in 1928—was a hero. Sfar was enthralled by Gainsbourg’s outrageous antics on French television, his unabashed romps with knockouts like Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin, and his reckless smoking and drinking, not to mention his talent as a singer and songwriter. All this from a skinny Jewish guy with protruding ears and a big nose.

Gainsbourg was a mostly washed-up artist when he died at 62 of a heart attack, in 1991. But that’s not what Sfar wishes to remember in his first feature film, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, which opens next week in the United States. Rather, Sfar revels in Gainsbourg’s crash-and-burn approach to life as an outsider, from his cavalier embrace of the yellow star in 1941 to his 1978 recording of a reggae remix of the French national anthem. The film takes creative license with Gainsbourg’s life, just as Gainsbourg was prone to do, and includes some of Sfar’s favorite things: puppets, caricature, Jewish themes, and sex.

Vox Tablet’s Sara Ivry spoke to Sfar about Gainsbourg’s life, his love-hate relationships with France and with Jews, and Sfar’s own provocations as an artist and filmmaker. [Running time: 19:07.]

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Vox Tablet is Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast, hosted by Sara Ivry and produced by Julie Subrin. You can listen to individual episodes here or subscribe on iTunes.

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