It takes Joann Sfar roughly three hours to complete a page of one of his celebrated comic books such as The Rabbi’s Cat or Klezmer.
If only screenwriting was so comfortably predictable, some might think. But for Sfar – whose name comes from the Hebrew sofer, for scribe – it has proved to be anything but. Sfar sweated through 11 drafts before he finally completed the screenplay for his first film, an unconventional biopic about the hard-living French singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, which he also directed. Called Gainsbourg: Vie Héroïque in France, it was screened at festivals as Gainsbourg: Je t’aime …Moi non plus. On its release in Britain later this month it will be called simply Gainsbourg.
Instead of typing his screenplay on to a computer, Sfar made a huge comic book – 400 pages long – with pencil and watercolours, which he then cut and pasted to make a script. The advantage of this was that he also had the material for a comic book about Gainsbourg (published in France last December); the disadvantage was that by his own admission he struggled to get his script to build towards a satisfying climax. Sfar, who turns 39 in August, also began to drink quite heavily, as did his subject. “I wanted to find the ghost of Gainsbourg,” he says, a trifle sheepishly.
We are sitting in a room dominated by two large sketching tables; in the middle of one wall there is a poster for Sfar’s popular Algiers-set comic-book series, The Rabbi’s Cat, which he is currently co-directing for the screen as an animated film. The room is one of several on a floor that Sfar is renting out from the cash-strapped French Communist Party in its impressive Oscar Niemeyer-designed headquarters on Place Colonel Fabien in Paris.
“I wanted to create a Yiddish Bolshevik party in Paris,” says Sfar, breaking into a toothy smile. The joke is quite a funny one, given that there would probably be a lot of adherents at the moment.
With his buzz cut, beetle-brows, biker boots and black T-shirt adorned with a skull, Sfar looks like he’s just stepped out of a death metal reunion. But his thought processes are far from primitive. Every question provokes an onslaught of ideas, a veritable dance of the dialectic. “When I was with the philosophy teacher I loved to talk about the Talmud and when I was a Talmud student I loved to speak about philosophy,” he says. “I love to quarrel. When people agree I want to leave the table.”
The characters in Sfar’s comic books – the young Ukrainian ukulele player in Klezmer or the talking cat in The Rabbi’s Cat – are distinguished by their complete disregard for self-censorship. Sfar, who studied philosophy and linguistics at university, was brought up to be equally forthright. When he lost his mother at the age of three his guiding lights became his father, a combative Jewish lawyer who emigrated to France from Sétif in Algeria, and his Jewish maternal grandfather who came to France from the Ukraine and fought for the French resistance. Sfar’s grandfather received French citizenship after using his skills as a doctor to save the French writer and statesman André Malraux’s hand during the second world war.
Born and raised in Nice in the south of France, Sfar went to the local school but also spent seven years, from six to 13, learning Hebrew and the precepts of the Torah every Wednesday and Sunday morning. (“When you come from such a religious family as I did you cannot pretend you’re a Buddhist. It’s very difficult for me not to be Jewish so I don’t even try.”) His spare time, what little there was left, was compulsively spent drawing and making up outlandish, never-ending stories.
When Sfar was approached to make a live-action film about Gainsbourg (who was born in 1928, despite his eternally boyish appearance) he thought back to his war-hero grandfather. Both men were the sons of Jewish Russian parents and struggled to be accepted in France: Sfar’s grandfather as a doctor, and Gainsbourg first as a painter and then as a singer-songwriter.
“My grandfather, who was a classic European-type Don Juan, often said it was loving women which helped him to get accepted in France and break down the barriers,” says Sfar. “I think it was the same for Gainsbourg. I wanted to depict this kind of character, where the world changes around him and he never changes one little bit.
“My passions run to beautiful women, fairy-tales, self-destruction and music. Gainsbourg seemed to encapsulate all of those,” adds Sfar, who has a penchant for depicting the lives of self-damaging artists, especially those with a Slavic or Jewish temperament …preferably both. One of his most enjoyable, not to mention erotic comic book series is about the tragic Bulgarian painter Jules Pascin whose resolutely bohemian lifestyle led to the nickname the Prince of Montparnasse. Like Pascin, Gainsbourg combined a reputation for excessive living with a tinge of shy boyishness: instead of making a conventional biopic, Sfar instead decided to make “a monster movie” harking back to the tradition of early 20th-century French fantasy films, such as Louis Feuillade’s silent classic Fantômas.
“French fantasy films are very strange because they are at the same time very logical, very cruel and very funny,” says Sfar. “It’s very appealing but it’s a genre that hasn’t been used in France for a long time. French people love ‘creatures’ in an American movie, but when it’s a French movie, they’re expecting a love story in Saint Germain.”
In Sfar’s film, the adult Gainsbourg (a performance of uncanny verisimilitude by French stage actor Eric Elmosnino) is a Jekyll and Hyde-style creation whose inhibitions are unlocked by a grotesque version of himself with massive prosthetic nose and ears called “La Gueule”, brought ecstatically to life by lanky contortionist actor Doug Jones. He was more interested, he says, in creating a film about the myth of Gainsbourg – recreating his legendary encounters with French icons such as Boris Vian, Brigitte Bardot and Juliette Gréco – than offering a factual retelling of his life: “My whole point was not to explain his mystery, not to open his secret, but to pay tribute to his work.”
Sadly for Sfar, his film not only pays tribute to Gainsbourg but also to the young British actress Lucy Gordon who played Gainsbourg’s lover/muse Jane Birkin. The words “For Lucy” appear after the final credits, a reminder that Gordon committed suicide not long after filming ended.
“We were in the middle of editing the film when she [Gordon] died so the whole movie was edited with Lucy in mind,” Sfar says. “Maybe the editing of the movie would have been completely different if there had not been this tragedy.
“You make fiction because you want to escape the stupidity of real life and then another drama hits you,” Sfar adds. “My only answer to this is to flee into the world of fiction. I’ve got nothing intelligent to say when a young, beautiful and talented person kills herself.”
‘Gainsbourg‘ is released in the UK on July 30
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