Cartoonist Joann Sfar’s name may not mean much in the United States, but in France he’s nearly as revered as the pop icon at the center of his directorial debut. “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” delivers a playful, stylized rendition of French musician Serge Gainsbourg’s wild and sultry adventures. Sfar, whose landmark comics include “The Rabbi’s Cat” and the satiric “Dungeon” fantasy series, translates many of his visual sensibilities into this lively, unconventional biopic, which finally opens at New York’s Film Forum on Wednesday after receiving great acclaim in France.
Having already completed another feature and buried in other projects, Sfar took a brief moment from his packed schedule to chat with indieWIRE about his interest in Gainsbourg (played in the film by Eric Elmosnino) and why the musician is not so well known in the United States.
This is a personal project for you, since you first moved from Cannes to Paris with the intention of meeting Gainsbourg in 1991.
Yes, and I found out that he had died three months earlier. When he was alive, he was very easy to meet, and all the young people who wanted to have a drink with him, it was so easy. I had written a whole comic book about him and I put the original copy in the mailbox of the Gainsbourg family. Of course, they never answered. It probably wound up in the garbage. When I met Charlotte Gainsbourg 20 years later, she had no clue about it. When Gainsbourg died, it was such a big event in France.
When did you decide to return to his story?
I had no clue how to write a movie script, but I figured the best way to write his story would be with a graphic novel. My whole story about him is a fantasy, but the whole it is taken from Serge Gainsbourg’s quotes. Almost all the text from the movie comes from him. Some of it is lies, since he was drunk very often and he pretended about many things. So I made the story out of his fantasies, and I did a lot of photo color and sequences. My agents told me, “There’s no way anyone would want to make a movie out of this.” So I sent the sketchbook to the Gainsbourg family, and this time they said, “This is wonderful,” and that we had to make a movie out of it. I have to say that I was the first to be surprised. One could say that it’s because of Serge Gainsbourg that I was allowed to make a movie.
Gainsbourg is not widely known in the U.S., but in France he’s an icon. How do you account for that?
There’s one huge reason he’s not famous in the States: You have to understand what he sings. It’s so close to the traditions of Tin Pan Alley, Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin. On the other hand, he was the French Johnny Rotten. Of course, my father hated the guy. I come from an observant Jewish family. They’re very nice people, but not very funny. When I saw Gainsbourg on TV, everything the Bible prevents you from doing, he wanted to do. I saw this Russian Jewish guy hanging out with Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin and I said, “Maybe there’s no god, but there is hope somewhere.” What he did, from my perception, was use smoke and alcohol to make the kids laugh. He was making so many jokes and yet he was crying on the inside.
Many of your comic book characters, from the protagonists of “Klezmer” to “The Rabbi’s Cat,” deal with the conflicts between European Jewish identity and other modern, secular interests. Gainsbourg seems to be a part of that.
I relate to the guy on a very deep level. The story of Gainsbourg is kind of peculiar. His family was not religious at all; he barely knew that he was a Jew. But when he was 10 years ago, the French police summoned him to tell him he was a Jew and had to wear a yellow star. He said that he wanted to be the first one to wear it. The cops said, “Why are you in such a hurry to wear it?” And he said, “It’s not mine, it’s yours.” This was such a punk attitude, the idea that you are becoming a Jewish person because of the police, because before that, he couldn’t care less. Then his whole life is about being loved by that country. The first time he falls in love with Brigitte Bardot, he writes a letter for his father: “I am with Brigitte Bardot,” as if it were a medal of French citizenship. When he takes Jamaican musicians from Bob Marley’s band to play the French national anthem, it was such a huge shock in France. I remember the whole country being torn apart. It’s incredible how my country has changed in such a little time. It has been a family entertainment to go see my movie and see how beautiful it is when the Jamaican and Jewish-Russian guys together sing “La Marseillaise.”
Were you surprised by the warm reception the film received when it was released in France?
Not that much, actually, because Gainsbourg has managed to become classic here, in some ways. He wanted people to love him and he totally succeeded at that. The irony of it is the subtitle of the movie is “A Heroic Life.” It’s a question of what remains of French heroes. It’s been 20 years and you haven’t heard about anything coming from France–actors, writers. When I travel to other countries, people still ask me about Alain Delon. So making a story about Gainsbourg, you find yourself asking, “What remains of this character?” If you watched the last Woody Allen movie, you saw that Paris is a place for dreaming, and maybe for old people. So I want to ask what remains of French heroes.
What was it like to make the transition from writing comics to directing a feature?
I found that the hardest part was screenwriting. I still don’t know how to write a screenplay. I think I have to improve, but I wish to do it with my own tools. I don’t want to go for screenwriting methods. I want to use comic books and storytelling in a graphic fashion to write my next movies. When I met the French crew, people who had 20 years of experience, if you want them to accept you, you don’t have to be a pretentious guy. I said, “I make drawings. I don’t know the technical side, but I have a very precise idea of what I want.” I come up with an image and they answer with another image, and we find ourselves very quickly in a visual medium. I have to confess that comic books are more difficult. When something is wrong in a comic book, you never figure it out before it’s in bookstores. But with movies, you have 400 people every day helping you think it over.
You had Guillermo Del Toro’s production team work on the puppets in the film. What did they add to the experience?
We had his whole crew, the whole DDT team from Barcelona, and we had Doug Jones performing as all the creatures. They had just finished “Pan’s Labyrinth,” so I had the whole crew of that film working with me. My biggest fascination, as you may know from comic books, is fantasy and horror movies. I’m a huge fan of Roger Corman and the Hammer films. I said, “Maybe this will be my last movie, so let’s make sure there’s a monster,” because I love monsters.
It’s an interesting monster, though. Doug Jones plays “La Guele,” a sort of demonic alter ego who teases out Gainsbourg’s naughtier side. So he’s not exactly evil and not exactly a monster.
He’s the mask that Gainsbourg is hiding behind, but he can’t take the mask away. He’s not a bad creature, he’s just real energy, full of hatred and envy. But he can also be a very generous monster. Doug Jones was very happy because he told me, “It’s first time I’ve been asked to make a creature who is not supposed to frighten people.” He can play the piano, he can dance. The monster is never close to a naked woman. He’s not disturbed when Gainsbourg has sex. He sits on the bed as if it were nothing, because he only speaks to Serge. It’s as if he were putting his head on the table. He’s the object of desire, actually. He’s there to help the character feel joyful about bad things. In a way, the movie is a reaction to some kind of prohibition we are living today, where people shun alcohol, smoking, bad sexual demeanors, whatever. The creature is about how sooner or later we’re all going to die. I don’t know if it’s a good behavior in real life, but it’s fun to watch.
Any thoughts about the differences in reactions to the film from Gainsbourg fans and non-fans?
In most foreign countries, the famous character would be Brigitte Bardot. I have to say that I love this because it means this movie is about a Russian Jew who lives in France and met her. In this sense, it works because my favorite movie is “An American In Paris,” and we did our best to shoot in the same locations they used in that movie. [“Gainsbourg”] is a movie about what French men have become, and about my passion for the music.
How do you feel about people watching the film only because they’ve read your comics?
This is something I would love, because I don’t wish to make movies that would be different from my comic books. I don’t give preference to either medium. I do my movies with even more drawings than my comic books.
It’s great that “Gainsbourg” is opening in the U.S., but not enough of your comics have been translated into English.
When you have a comic book in the States, [the publishers] make big openings for those books. They don’t translate a lot of them, but when they do, they give me a book tour in the States, which is always very nice. Of course, in France, it’s bigger, but I’m fighting for that. There’s really an audience for it in the States, but maybe my comic books don’t go to comic book shops. You’ll find them in Barnes & Noble and other bookstores. Maybe I’m not popular among American superhero readers. I’m a huge reader of superhero comics, but my comic books don’t belong to that genre. Most of my readers in France don’t read comic books. It’s very refreshing to visit the States, because there I’m welcomed by the underground graphic novel movement. In France, we kind of founded that movement 20 years ago. No one considers us underground anymore. We’re mainstream because general readers buy our stuff.
Your animated adaptation of “The Rabbi’s Cat” has opened in Paris. When will it come to the U.S.?
It took two years for “Gainsbourg” to cross the ocean and “The Rabbi’s Cat” has just been released in France, so let’s give it sometime. The idea of making a mainstream animated movie, maybe there’s something appealing to me about it and I’d like to show it around the world. This one was hell for me. You have to be patient with animation; I do four pages of comics a day, and an animator does one second a day. But I’m diving back into animation by making an adaptation of another comic book I wrote, “Little Vampire.” John B. Carls is my producer. He worked on “Rango” and “Where the Wild Things Are.” It will be a mix between a Roger Corman movie and “Peanuts.” But I know it’s going to be hell once again.
How do you divide your time now between filmmaking and comics?
This has not been solved yet. I don’t sleep; I draw and write a lot, and whenever a project starts, I devote myself to it. It’s a lot of excitement, but I’m not eager to fight it.