Joann Sfar’s Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life — the biopic of French singer-songwriter, actor, filmmaker Serge Gainsbourg — is very nearly as inventive and fascinating as it is frustrating. The attempt at making a “new” kind of musical biography is certainly admirable, even if it’s not really new. The film feels a lot like, and owes a lot to, the Ken Russell composer biographies of the 1970s — The Music Lovers (1970), Mahler (1974), Lisztomania (1975) — with a dose of Fellini thrown in. This makes for a lively mix. It catches the playfulness of both directors, and it does so in ways that make it more than just an imitation. And goodness knows, Gainsbourg certainly makes for a nice break from such starchy biopics as Ray (2004) and Walk the Line (2005) — but Sfar lacks Russell’s sense of urgency, and the full flamboyance of either director.
Gainsbourg starts well with young Lucien Ginsburg (Kacey Mottet-Klein) as a defiant adolescent in Nazi-occupied France. Indeed, he’s so defiant that he insists on being the very first person to get the yellow star that Jews were forced to wear. This is also where the film hits its most intriguing flight of fancy, when a propaganda caricature of a Jew materializes out of a poster and follows Lucien around as the embodiment of everything he finds unattractive about himself. It’s hardly unimportant that young Lucien imagines shooting and killing the caricature — forming as neat an expression as you could hope for of the self-destructive adult he would become.
Actually, all of the childhood scenes are very fine, as are the early scenes leading to the point where adult Lucien (Eric Elmosnino in a great performance) re-invents himself as Serge Gainsbourg. The transition of the caricature into La Gueule (the Face) — a more specific caricature of Gainsbourg — is startling and effective, though the fact that this wicked alter-ego is played by Doug Jones inevitably calls to mind Jones’ portrayal of the faun in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. And yet, who besides Jones could play this fantasticated other self? The scene where he tempts Gainsbourg — La Gueule‘s specialty is appealing to the man’s worst tendencies — offering him the possibility of performing like Django Reinhardt, is little short of amazing. Unfortunately, it’s right about there that the film starts to lose its sense of drive and invention.
The problem that arises is two-fold. The film was made by someone already familiar with Gainsbourg and already sold on his greatness. Once it hits the more well-known (though I’m not sure how well-known all this is outside of France), the film tends to feel somewhat perfunctory — like it’s a laundry list of famous women with whom Gainsbourg had (or even might have had) affairs. This means we have to go through Juliette Greco (Anna Mouglalis), Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) and, more substantially, Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon). Some of it’s fun — especially Bardot’s entrance in a mini-skirt and thigh-high boots and walking an Afghan hound — but the sense of something fresh and vital gets lost along the way and the film becomes more conventional than it thinks it is.
Am I recommending the film? Oh, most certainly. Flawed though this story is of a self-indulgent, self-destructive artist, it’s so lively and creative that it definitely deserves to be seen. And when it’s on its game, it really soars. Not Rated, but contains sexuality, nudity and adult themes.