JIMFF 2012 Review: GAINSBOURG BY GAINSBOURG: AN INTIMATE SELF-PORTRAIT

Seen at the 8th Jecheon International Music & Film Festival (JIMFF).

When I noticed this documentary among the many titles on offer at this year's JIMFF, I quickly saved a spot for it in my schedule. It was my first time hearing of it but as I count myself one of Serge Gainsbourg's many fans it was out of the question that I should miss it. However, following the thrill of seeing it in the schedule and my rising excitement as I recalled this great artist's legacy, my initial enthusiasm soon turned to trepidation. Gainsbourg, of course, is no mere pop star (not that I mean to denigrate anyone associated with that label). He is one of the most complicated mainstream artists of the 20th century. Following his death, the president of his native France declared him a national treasure, placing him in the same pantheon as Apollinaire and Baudelaire, two of the finest poets to ever put pen to paper.
 
My fear was that he is a towering figure, a versatile musician with an enigmatic persona: how does one adumbrate his life and work in a mere 100 minutes? There was no doubt in my mind that the music would be up to par (as it would be his) and that I could expect a number of interesting anecdotes coupled with footage and audio of the great man himself outside of his recorded oeuvre. What did nag at me was that I could scarcely imagine how the film could live up to the man.
 
I am very happy to report that the film just about pulled off that feat. It is introspective, romantic, scandalous and sometime impenetrable, just like the man himself. Indeed, as the title suggest, this documentary acts is like a self-portrait. Granted it is something of a misnomer as the man has been dead for just over 20 years but it never feels like anybody else's film, it is a moving and permeable document. Spontaneous and philosophical, it reveals the layers beneath the surface without ever leading us to conclusions.
 
The majority of the feature is narrated by Gainsbourg, pieced together using recordings he made before his death. I can't be certain that the film will appeal to anyone who is not drawn to his music but I can say that though it offers little in terms of a linear narrative or many concrete autobiographical details, Gainsbourg by Gainsbourg is never abstruse. I say this because despite being a fan I actually knew very little about the man and now I feel as though I know quite well. That alone is proof enough for me that this is a successful documentary. Of all music docs I saw at Jecheon, many of which employed clever narrative, editing and multimedia tricks and structures, none were as successful as this fresh, sincere and fascinating work.
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