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on Aug 31, 2011

Something of a national treasure in his native France, Joann Sfar (The Rabbi’s Cat) is the award–winning author of graphic novels, comics, and children’s books, including the New York Times bestseller Little Vampire Goes to School and a fresh re-imagining of Saint-Exupéry’s classic Le Petit Prince. Sfar was a serious student of philosophy at the University of Nice despite his strict religious upbringing (his mother is Ashkenazi and his father Sephardic), but decided to chase his youthful dream of publishing comics. He studied under painter Jean-François Debord at the School of Fine Arts in Paris (ADERF) and eventually became one of the rising young stars of an underground comics movement that included Lewis Trondheim and Christophe Blain. Recently, Sfar has immersed himself in the world of filmmaking, transforming his whimsical comics (think Marc Chagall meets Will Eisner) into equally fanciful, story-based films. Earlier this year in France, Sfar released an animated version of The Rabbi’s Cat, which he co-directed with Antoine Delesvaux, and is currently developing a 3D English-language feature based on his Little Vampire series.

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is a live-action fantasy based on the life of über-French chansonnier and peerless provocateur Serge Gainsbourg (embodied by look-alike stage actor Eric Elmosnino), whose Russian-Jewish background and almost mythic love affairs with Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin (whose orgasmic moans made famous their 1969 duet “Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus”) he explores with eccentric charm, employing a kind of dream logic to connect different episodes from the singer’s life. Sfar’s biggest conceit in Gainsbourg, which was released to great acclaim last year in France (it won a César for best debut feature), centers on an incident that occurs early in the film: walking through Occupied Paris, a school-age Lucien Ginsburg (who later adopted his stage name) is alarmed to see a horrifically anti-Semitic caricature and, in the shock of self-realization, sees it spring to life, a monster that morphs into eerie alter ego Mug (played by Doug Jones of Pan’s Labyrinth), his shadow id and (occasionally misguided) conscience. Sfar’s depiction of the iconic composer captures many facets of Gainsbourg’s persona, including the self-abuse that he seemed to parade as proudly as his smuttiest compositions, but it’s the elements of comic-book-inflected fantasy (the director enthuses equally about F.W. Murnau and Peter Jackson by way of explaining his visual technique) that differentiate the film from standard-issue music biopics.

Filmmaker spoke with Sfar about Jewish identity, sequential art, bad behavior, and why French stuntmen have balls. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life opens today at Film Forum.

Joann Sfar

Filmmaker: You really foregrounded Serge Gainsbourg’s Jewish identity in the film, which is an aspect of his persona we don’t hear a lot about.

Sfar: Definitely, and I could even have gone stronger on that topic. My Jewishness is usual — I was taught by rabbis, I had strong religious training — but his was different. He comes from a Russian-Jewish family who did not give a damn about religion. They wanted to be French. He claimed many times that he wanted to be the first to get his yellow star — it was such an attitude. He embraced that anti-Semitic cliché and threw it in everyone’s face. When he did his album Rock Around the Bunker, which is his most Johnny Rotten moment, he wanted to wear a Nazi uniform on the cover. The image was rejected — it was just published for the first time three years ago — and that was so him. When he did “La Marseillaise” with a reggae group 20 years ago, it was a huge scandal in France. Some thought it was wonderful and the others wanted to cut his throat because of anti-Semitism and racism. Now my movie is out and it’s become a family event — even kids go. He has become the most French singer you can imagine, the symbol of the Gallic lover, the ladies man. The truth is, although he would have loved to have been Don Draper or the guy in An American in Paris kissing girls on the banks of the Seine, this was a mask.

Filmmaker: You emphasize your own Jewish identity in The Rabbi’s Cat and other graphic novels. That’s an important aspect of your artistic sensibility, too.

Sfar: Yes. When I was 9 years old I asked my father, “What is it to be a homosexual?” And he told me, “It would be as terrible as if you married a non-Jewish person.” So I chose the blonde. [Smiles] When I was 7, I was in the Haida and they told me, “Whenever someone masturbates, there are 10 million sperms that get lost in the atmosphere — and the Shoah was only 6 million. So imagine the power you have in your wrist!” They were kind of heavy on me with that stuff. France is not an anti-Semitic country, but they have a sick passion for Jews. Every Jewish subject will become big there, maybe to please the Arab population, I don’t know. Should I be an Israeli, I would be extreme left. All of my characters became Jewish, but I don’t want to do folklore or become clichéd. Yet that is my background — there is a voice.

Filmmaker: Graphic novels have their own rhythm and visual language. How did you translate that — your customary mode of storytelling — to the medium of cinema?

Sfar: Some executives asked me to make a movie and I wanted to focus on Serge Gainsbourg. They told me biopics were old-fashioned so I must not do that. I said, “This won’t be a biopic, it will be a musical,” and they said, “That’s even worse!” Lucky for me, the Gainsbourg family loved the idea, and I was the first person to whom they gave the rights to his songs, so I was happy with that. Then I started with storyboards because I had no clue how to write a script, and it turned out to be a real comic book — 400 pages of watercolors and heavily pornographic drawings you won’t find in the movie — and we made it with those. The comic was released the same month as the movie, but it wasn’t an adaptation. The only language I know comes from comics, and they aren’t a big help. Drawing is helpful, but comic books don’t compare to cinematic storytelling. It’s not the same kind of sequence at all, especially my way of storytelling, which is more Russian, I guess, using montage and letting the audience do the work. But the drawings helped me gain the respect of the crew. When you work with a puppeteer who has 20 years working with prosthetics or production designers who’ve been working with the best French filmmakers — if I make drawings, I become a technician. I bring a visual proposition and we work with that. I only speak in terms of painting and composition, and my DP speaks only in movement and light, and this constant struggle brings wonderful stuff. There was also a struggle with the actors. I took most of them from stage acting because they like to rehearse, and so do I. We had five months of rehearsals for this film.

Filmmaker: So you let the actors find their way into these larger-than-life personas, like Brigitte Bardot.

Sfar: I was silly enough to hire a dance teacher for Laetitia Casta, who has to dance on a piano. Something was not right after three or four weeks of rehearsing. She called me for a drink one night and said, “Basically, you want me to give the audience a hard-on. Can we please just fire the dance teacher and then we can start to work?” And she was right, because the scene is about a world-famous woman who’s in a private apartment and wants to give her lover a dance. She’s not meant to be the best dancer in the world — she just needs to be moving. I said, “What does she say after a night with him?” And she said, “Are there any croissants?” The whole movie is about that — the actors sing with their own voices, not because they’re good singers, but because everyone has those classic Gainsbourg recordings at home. You don’t want the movie to stop and then hear an old record. It’s about live performance.

Filmmaker: Why work in three dimensions after growing so comfortable expressing yourself in two?

Sfar: I don’t know, but it’s so cool. I’m the monster from the closet — I’ve worked alone for 20 years and then you bring me to a place with so many beautiful actresses, I won’t leave until they kick me out! I have to say we did almost everything on set — there are very few CGI shots in the movie. When there is fire, that’s a real fire, and when you see unbelievable color, that wasn’t done in post-production. We put our lights on a dolly and moved them during the shot in order to have the shadow of the creature moving. I like CGI when it’s like Watchmen because then the whole movie is about that [effect]. But when it’s about fire, if I don’t know a stuntman could have died, I’m not happy with the process. When you work with French stuntmen, death is something you cross every day. In America or Australia, it’s a very professional business. Doing stunts in France is about having balls. We had no fireman in that sequence I mentioned because none would have agreed to attend. We had something to ignite the flames and [retardant] to prevent it from spreading — the cameras were so hot we could not touch them. It was unbelievable.

Filmmaker: The film is a dream of sorts about Gainsbourg’s life that retains some of the elliptical traits of sequential comics art.

Sfar: I have a serious issue with my intimate writing practice — I feel I have to improve my scriptwriting. But every time I read about methods [for screenwriting], I wish I could shoot the guy. They’ve made something which has been forbidden since Plato: don’t try to put logic into it. There’s a reason why you can never forget Dumbo, but you cannot explain it. When you read The Hobbit, he may have a [stereotypical] hero’s journey, but his is incredible, and there are 2,000 others that are not. I try to work with visually shocking moments and build around them. The whole Gainsbourg film was shot on location, for instance, and I tried to make this look like production design!

Filmmaker: Why is that?

Sfar: Because I love An American in Paris, and I hate camera-on-the-shoulder French movies. We have less than 700 shots — each of them has to be very Japanese, in a way. So it means building. When we were on the banks of the Seine, we had 200 kilos of light. A few days ago I had a shock when I was on a plane watching Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris: I discovered that we share between 12 and 15 locations. But he’s embracing the cliché for other reasons, and they are shot in different ways. I found it very funny.

Filmmaker: Has your background in philosophy had an important role to play in how you approach storytelling?

Sfar: Maybe. But first it was to please my father. I did comic books for 20 years and he kept telling me, “Go back to philosophy.” Now I’ve done a movie and he says, “Stick to comics — those will last.” One useful thing was the method of dissertation: You try to expose all the possible opinions on a subject and try to resolve them in a way, with a new question at the end. So that method, which you find in Aristotle, is what we perform in order to do cool storytelling. Sometimes there are choices that come from our cultural influences. For instance, in the States the hero of a movie is meant to learn something, and in European storytelling is about the inability of learning or changing anything and the permanence of the tragic.

Filmmaker: You were talking to Charlotte Gainsbourg at one point about playing Serge.

Sfar: Yes. For the first month of production, she accepted the idea and was to play her father. Then she woke up one day and she told me it was too painful. She said, “You have to do the film because my daddy would be proud, but I don’t want to be involved anymore.” She wanted to do the movie in order to kill the dragon, and it would have been an extraordinary perspective.

Filmmaker: I read that the stage actor who you cast in the lead role, Eric Elmosnino, who embodied Serge Gainsbourg so beautifully, had no real connection to the singer or his legacy.

Sfar: He couldn’t be less interested. The first thing he said was, “Let’s pretend it’s an imaginary character.” And that was quite a gift, because we did not want the burden of creating a museum about a historical figure. I love guys who come from the stage because they have a way of working pretty much like cartoonists.

Filmmaker: The way you shoot your actors performing music seemed very authentic to me, and unlike the cheats we usually see in biopics or other kinds of films. You play a number of instruments yourself — did that know-how influence what you told your actors or where you placed the camera?

Sfar: Maybe it’s my not being a musician that helped. I’m fascinated with musicians and I draw them all the time. So from instinct, I know where to watch. I don’t care about them really playing, I just want this to be believable on the screen. Besides, the music I play would be very different: Hank Williams or Jimmie Rodgers, on a banjo with a harmonica. Loving other people’s music, and feeling my own was bad, helped me direct them. Also, I love musicals. Some moments were live recordings, some we made in the studio, and some moments we did live but had several takes, so it was tricky. But really fun.

Filmmaker: I love the scene where Gainsbourg shows up to lead a music class for Jewish children whose parents were killed in concentration camps. He’s reluctant at first, then relishes the role.

Sfar: This is a true story. He worked there for two years and that was his first audience. The drawings and poems by the kids you see on the walls are the actual ones his students made because the association gave them to us for the movie. When you see all the boys and girls smiling and laughing, it’s real, because we had Eric dancing and [captured] their reactions to him. Most of those shots come from the first take.

Filmmaker: How did your colleagues in the graphic-novelist circle react to your move into cinema?

Sfar: They didn’t say anything bad about the movie but I guess they think bad things about me and Marjane Satrapi because we are becoming successful: We must have sold our soul. You cannot prevent this kind of reaction. Coming from the underground [comics world] and seeking success and being delighted when success happens, you wouldn’t expect this. I have a posse of 20 cartoonists who are my best friends and have never been that friendly to other people from the profession.  We have our own studio [Autochenille Production] and have never pretended to love other people, so we don’t expect flowers. [Laughs]

Filmmaker: You were the subject of a documentary recently…

Sfar: There have been two, actually. One was made by an American named Sam Ball, who’s a wonderful guy who made me look much more observant than I am. And the other was by [actor-director] Mathieu Amalric. It’s very funny because they show two different cartoonists: Sam Ball shows a tragic, observant Jew who pays tribute to his ancestors, and Mathieu Amalric shows me misbehaving with women and drawing dead bodies in the hospital! Maybe I prefer the film with naked women—but this is not the one to send my father.

Filmmaker: Something tells me Amalric was involved in some of those misadventures.

Sfar: Yeah, because he wanted this to be pornographic and funny — and this is something you don’t have to ask me twice. Sam Ball expected me to do something that would be useful for Jewish fundraising, I don’t know. What’s interesting is that when someone [trains an eye] on you, he is actually speaking about himself. I’m always a mirror.

Filmmaker: Given that, what does Gainsbourg say about you?

Sfar: There is one thing: the confusion between intimacy and the audience. When you expect the audience to love you as if it were your wife or family — because they liked your book or your song — this sadness, this confusion would pretty much be me. Maybe I could have been more myself. If you are kind enough to look at the watercolors for the movie, there are many shocking elements. I didn’t want to inflict this on my actors and maybe I was wrong. I’m still learning, and I wanted to prove I could be well-dressed for my barmitzvah.  I made something very elegant and mainstream, but I’m more poisonous inside. I am still trying to behave but it’s something I don’t do in comics. So I have to learn that — how to be dirty.

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