News moves fast. Whitney Houston's death is announced, and video tributes instantly flood the internet. Most clips are predictable, but one excerpt taken from the French television program Champs-Elysées stands out for sheer weirdness while demonstrating one of the singer's less-celebrated attributes: her composure. Houston was seated next to Serge Gainsbourg, the grizzled, unkempt, chain-smoking bad boy of French popular music, who called her a genius, kissed her hands, then said in perfect, unmistakably vulgar English that he was ready to knock boots. Gainsbourg's directness is so otherworldly one almost expects the camera to cut away and reveal "Face," the grotesque, faintly malevolent puppet version of Gainsbourg created by graphic novelist turned filmmaker Joann Sfar for his biographical fantasy Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, which screens at the Brooks Museum of Art this weekend.
Gainsbourg's life, cut short by a heart attack in 1991, was many things. Colorful, poetic, and action-packed all seem to fit. Heroic, on the other hand, probably isn't high on anybody's list of adjectives. Sfar's unconventional film doesn't pretend otherwise.
Gainsbourg has no good American counterpart but can be understood as a little bit Lou Reed and a little bit Dean Martin with a whole lot of Johnny Rotten mixed in to keep things obnoxious. A Heroic Life takes cues from horror pioneer F.W. Murnau and unfolds as a different kind of monster movie about a man whose talents are as grand and soul-consuming as his appetites. You know, the kind of man who might be tempted by a grotesque puppet into groping Whitney Houston on French TV.
Gainsbourg was a provocateur and an infamous skirt-chaser, who had well known affairs with actress Brigitte Bardot and singer Jane Birkin. He didn't get far with Whitney who smiled through the awkwardness and held his hand.
"Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life" at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art on Sunday, February 19th, 2 p.m. Tickets: $6-$8. brooksmuseum.org