MELISSA BLOCK, host: Serge Gainsbourg became a provocative symbol of rebellion against respectable life in 1960s and '70s France. Now, the songwriter, singer and actor is the subject of a fictional film called "Gainsbourg, A Historic Life." It opens in parts of the U.S. this week. There's been no shortage of tributes to Gainsbourg since he died 20 years ago, but as Pat Dowell reports, this film's director is as interesting as its subject.

PAT DOWELL: "Gainsbourg" is the first movie directed by Joann Sfar, a French artist who's won many awards for his graphic novels, although he doesn't like that term.

JOANN SFAR: Yeah, it means if you're a grownup, you can buy them and not being ashamed, but they are comic book.

DOWELL: Sfar writes for adults, as with "The Rabbi's Cat," in which the cat argues theology with his master. And he writes for kids. His "The Little Vampire" series has the title character doing an orphaned boy's homework. But Sfar's film is not based on a graphic novel.

SFAR: The movie's not taken from a comic book. I used the comic book form to write the movie. But you could say my way of writing goes through drawing.

DOWELL: In fact, Sfar says he used drawings to communicate with his production designers and director of photography. And he says he wants the audience to remember strong pictures, above all.

SFAR: I love Russian way of storytelling, when you put strong picture close to other strong picture and you expect the audience to do the job. Those would be comic books and a kind of montage way of editing a movie.

DOWELL: Like his protagonist, Sfar came from a Russian-Jewish background. In an early scene in the film, the boy, Lucien Ginsburg, the songwriter's given name, is walking down a street in Nazi-occupied Paris.


DOWELL: He passes a poster filled by a grotesque face titled "The Jew and France." The anti-Semitic caricature comes down from the wall, a huge puppet head with four legs and four wiggly arms and it waddles after the boy. Filmmaker Joann Sfar first became aware of Gainsbourg after the songwriter became a celebrity. The young comic book artist knew Gainsbourg only from afar, as a teenager growing up in the south of France.

SFAR: You see, it was a Jewish man dating Brigitte Bardot. This was an achievement in my perception. And I have to say, the guy made you feel it must be cool to get to grownup.

DOWELL: Sfar says it was his goal to get to Paris and meet his idol, but the singer died three months before Sfar arrived.


DOWELL: The movie lavishes great attention on the relationship between Gainsbourg and Bardot, as he creates a new song for her.


DOWELL: Gainsbourg is portrayed, and his songs sung, by actor Eric Elmosnino, who won a French Cesar for his performance as a man in love with France, director Sfar says, and also at odds with his country over its treatment of Jews in the war and after.

SFAR: In his family, no one cared about religion. And then he's 10 years old, and French police calls him and give him a yellow star. So it's the strange story of a guy who became a Jew because of French police.


SFAR: And the dialogue I put in the movie is something Serge Gainsbourg had said many times, he wanted to be the first one to get the yellow star. And when the cop tell him, are you in such a hurry to get your star? He answers, but sir, this is not mine. This is yours.


SFAR: And this is so much him.

DOWELL: Sfar says Gainsbourg was subjected to lifelong anti-Semitism. In the film, the adult is shadowed even in his success by a larger-than-life caricature that he drew as a boy. Tall and hook-nosed, it's the metamorphosis of that vile poster that followed him, only with a bit of sinister suavity added. The character, played by a man in a puppet's head, black tie, and claws, mocks his creator.


DOWELL: He's called The Mug in English, or in French, La Guel.

SFAR: La guel means a kind of ugly and sorry face. And the point is, Gainsbourg was sure he was ugly, and he was sure he looked like the anti-Semitic drawings. Not only during World War II, but even in the '60s when his first record were made, there were titles in the newspapers that compared him to a rat or to a monkey. And this was a heavy burden to him. And he say, I've been creating a mask and I cannot remove it now.

DOWELL: Not that there's a lesson to be drawn from any of this. Just as Joann Sfar insists that his film is not a literary adaptation, he's just as sure it's not a bio-pic, which, to him, means a life story that teaches life lessons.

SFAR: Most of the movie I see try to teach me something. I'm so grateful when a beautiful thing try to teach me nothing. You know, sometimes movies seem to be like a medicine. I wish to be sad, I wish to be lost and I desperately don't wish to be taught anything.

DOWELL: Yet Joann Sfar has learned to like directing. He's already completed an animated version "The Rabbi's Cat." He's at work adapting "The Little Vampire," and has written another live-action script. For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.

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