Anyone intent on gathering the biographical details of singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg might be frustrated by Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, director Joann Sfar’s film about France’s coolest native son. It’s more dreamscape than biopic; wives and children pop up and disappear without exposition, while years slip by and locations remain elusive. The film aims to create a sense of what it might have been like to be Gainsbourg (born Lucien Ginsburg, the son of Russian Jews, in Paris in 1928), the composer and whisperer of smoky, impudent lyrics and lover of Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birkin and many more.
Long an avid student of Gainsbourg’s cool, Sfar has never made a film before this one(for which he won a Cesar last year for best first film). Sfar is also a successful comics artist, and his graphic sensibility can be sensed throughout Gainsbourg, as when young Lucien (played as a 10-year-old by Kacey Mottet-Klein) walks by a cartoonish street poster meant to represent French Jews, which turns into a vast-headed puppet and follows him down the street.
He explodes that head in his imagination, and the creature evolves into a beaky, tall, elegantly dressed entity (played by Doug Jones) with scissor-like hands who turns up sporadically throughout Gainsbourg’s adult life to scold, cajole and mock him. La Gueule, as the creature is called, is the embodiment of Gainsbourg’s self-doubt and worst tendencies — the id of the artist — and as ugly as Gainsbourg believed himself to be. After adult Gainsbourg (played by eerie look-a-like Eric Elmosnino) is hospitalized following a coronary and his long-indulgent partner Birkin (the late Lucy Gordon) draws the line and denies his request for cigarettes, it’s La Gueule who turns up with a carton of smokes, and they puff away together. There’s a touch of Where the Wild Things Are in Gainsbourg as well as some Amelie-like frivolity — the dose of playfulness may be too strong for some.
But Gainsbourg also has something in common with La Vie en Rose, another film about an icon, in that it rests on a dazzling anchoring performance — Elmosnino even does his own singing. He carries an endearing undercurrent of vulnerability throughout Gainsbourg’s early affairs and first two marriages. “Excuse me, I’m totally hopeless,” he tells singer Juliette Greco (Anna Mouglalis) as she prepares to seduce him. He’s even insecure after bedding Bardot (lusciously embodied by Laetitia Casta), a masculine triumph that causes his charming father (Razvan Vasilescu) to dance a jig. It’s only with Birkin that he seems finally content, and the sparkling Gordon couldn’t have been better cast as his muse. (The actress committed suicide in 2009.)
During the early Birkin years, Sfar’s Gainsbourg banishes La Gueule. But then the monster crawls inside him instead, as monsters are wont to do in movies about creative people. (No one makes movies about stable, healthy artists, because that would be boring — but all these creative demons lurking within can get boring, too.) Gainsbourg becomes arrogant and dangerous, and the sweetie pie turns into a shambling drunk, the kind who has trouble connecting cigarette with mouth. Sfar deftly regenerates the early-’70s pop-cultural fantasy of Gainsbourg and Birkin — moaning their way through their scandalous hit Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus, they dripped with sex, like musical versions of Burton and Taylor. Inevitably, the movie loses some of its mojo when they part.
And what of that subtitle, A Heroic Life? It’s not ironic — not entirely. A little kid who wore the yellow star and hid in the countryside from the Nazis grew up to be France’s most beloved singer as well as a prolific filmmaker, an artist and, for all his foibles, a well-adored ex-lover and father. (Birkin and their daughter, actress-singer Charlotte Gainsbourg, gave their blessing to this film.) There’s something heroic about this underdog who found his voice and wooed a nation with it. He can’t be brought back to life, but in Gainsbourg and through Elmosnino, some of that marvelous cool comes through.