One of the major problems with the aesthetic of cinema has always been that thin line which exists between realism and surrealism.
Realism is about the effect of the environment upon the shaping of the individual character, whereas surrealism is the exploration of the symbolic nature of the character’s subconscious. At a certain point surrealism will merge with realism -but in essence both are very much their own separate entities. This conflict between realism and surrealism can be seen in two films which chronicle the lives of Serge Gainsbourg and Edith Piaf.
It goes without saying that both Serge Gainsbourg and Edith Piaf were the major voices of French popular culture during the 20th century. Piaf became a symbol of the resistance and the international voice of the French nation after the second world war. Gainsbourg was the agent provocateur of the 60s and the 70s. It was only a matter of time before their life stories were burnt by light on to the surface of celluloid, and yet it would seem that the cinematic response to these singers would not become a response to their music, but instead a response to the aesthetic of film itself. In the end this is not a tale of Edith Piaf or Serge Gainsbourg, but the tale of realism and surrealism. It is about the atheistic of cinema.
Ostensibly Gainsbourg (Joann Sfar, 2010) is a surrealist film. It moves through the life of Serge Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino) with symbolic ease. This gorgeous and creatively fruitful film sweeps the audience through music, affairs, Jewish roots during the second world war, to the fame of a singer-songwriter and then down into a decent of heart attacks and alcohol.
This Gainsbourg though is not the historical reality of the singer himself, instead it is a symbolic world built through the mind of Serge Gainsbourg and the art and music he left behind. It is a space of dreams and random connections. A fantasy where his alter ego can follow the film’s character, Gainsbourg, around. The world in this film has resolutely collapsed, a place where life becomes a subconscious choice between competing symbols. This is a semiotic look in to the mind of an artist, in a very similar way that 81/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963) was an exploration of the creative process of the artist.
La Vie En Rose (Olivier Dahan, 2007) is another matter completely. All though the narrative if fragmented, and the audience is given four separate portraits of Edith Piaf (Marion Cotillard) at different stages in her life, it is still a very solid realist piece of cinema. There is no symbolic subconscious. The four Piafs given to us in this film show that she is certainly a product of the environment that created her. This is a women who grew up in a brothel in Normandy, a singer who was found singing for money on the streets of Paris in the 30s, a woman who became an international star, while at the same time destroying herself through drugs and alcohol. La Vie En Rose has a rawness about it that Gainsbourg does not. In this film Edith Piaf is not a character as cipher as Gainsbourg is. Instead La Vie En Rose is an attempt to be as close to Piaf and her world as realism can get.
Although there are no subconscious images in La Vie En Rose, the film is a product of the subconscious imagination, and therefore it is surrealist. The subconscious of Piaf is there for all to see in the face and the actions of the actress Marion Cotillard.
If La Vie En Rose is a surrealist film, then Gainsbourg is a realist film in the sense that, although the subconscious is exposed through surrealist imagery, the subconscious is shown to be external to the life of the character Serge Gainsbourg, rather than internalised, as in the Piaf in La Vie En Rose. All of which makes the terminology of realism and surrealism rather redundant, due to the fact that they are one and the same thing. Both realism and surrealism cross over that thin veiled line that separates them both merging in to one single form of representation.
What the hell are we watching then? As realism and surrealism have merged we could easily have reached a point where what we are watching on the screen is just pure human nature in all its dimensions. A humanity shown to us in the form of Edith Piaf and Serge Gainsbourg that is fragile, self conscious, creative, imaginative, emotional, both beautiful and dark, soulful and soulless.
It does not matter how the subconscious is portrayed on the screen, on the surface or as symbols, as long as in the end humanity is reflected back in to the room, the audience will know that it is good to be alive, that it is good to think and feel, that it is good just to be human. In the end it would be fine to call cinema human, human to the core. Humanity is the only aesthetic we will ever really need.
(image: La Vie En Rose)