The Cine Lumiere is as good a place as any to feel deja vu.
Last week’s screening of Gainsbourg by Gainsbourg (as part of the 16th UK Jewish Film Festival) played to a 3/4 full house. The film, by Pierre-Henri Salfati, is the second biopic about Gainsbourg in two years (the first was Joann Sfar’s more imaginative and eccentric Ma Vie Heroique). Through curls of cigarette smoke, Gainsbourg’s tired face is in almost permanent close up as he ponders his life of excess. Archive footage of intimate 50s jazz sessions – the young Gainsbourg was a surprisingly able pianist – segue into clips of the beaten old alcoholic, staggering around on stage before thousands of fans. But the musical story is secondary ; this is really a story about reinvention. Gainsbourg was born Lucien Ginzburg and had just turned 13 when he was forced to wear a yellow star and packed off to the South to live with Catholic peasants in the countryside. Hiding not just from the Germans but also the French “militia”, he was sent into the woods with an axe and told to say he was the woodcutter’s son. Here he stayed for weeks, reliant on his hosts to bring him parcels of food. While glossing over the details of Lucien’s challenges reintegrating into his family (who also, miraculously, seemed to have survived, although the film is unclear by what means) and, subsequently, into post-war Paris, Salfati is at pains to underscore the transformation of Ginzburg into national treasure Gainsbourg with his formative experiences as a Jewish boy in hiding during the Occupation of France. Gainsbourg’s raison d’être was to challenge French society, and with his 1975 album, Rock Around The Bunker, he took on the cherished myth of French Resistance. With songs like Nazi Rock and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes he exploded the notion that the French resisted German Occupation, asserting instead a dirty complicity, even fascination with Nazism. But despite his acclaim, Gainsbourg’s self-loathing ruined his ability to enjoy his success, which he refers to in the film as “prostitution”. Surrounded by women of staggering physical beauty, he contrasts himself as ugly, opting to smoulder destructively rather than sparkle.
The previous week, the cine had screened Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir. Trudging through his life in unimaginative chronological detail, the film creates suspense around the 9 month house arrest of the elderly Polanski and his possible extradition back to LA to serve more time for having sex with a minor. While this inferior film had fewer close ups and no cigarette smoke, the life it traced bore uncanny resemblance, I later realised, to Gainsbourg’s. In fact, there were moments when I wondered if anyone would notice if footage from Polanski’s life had been accidentally edited into Gainsbourg’s life story. The harrowing childhood experiences that shaped and scarred the subsequent decades were different, of course – one was in the Polish ghetto the other was in Occupied France – and Polanski’s film memoir recounts his early horrors in greater detail than the Gainsbourg biopic. Nonetheless, watching these films – one week apart from each other – in the same, luxurious cinema, gave me a sense of deja vu; both these destinies were shaped by similar shadows, shadows that danced tirelessly across the time-worn closeup faces of Gainsbourg and Polanski.
The question is now: what creative programming will the UK Jewish Film Festival devise to tease out more parallels across the cultural world and how can these inform an enlightened contemporary identity?