Serge Gainsbourg has no American equivalent. The homely and hard-living French singer-songwriter’s astoundingly wide-ranging output was often overshadowed by his affairs with the world’s most beautiful women and obscene outbursts on talk shows.
Ask any Frenchman about French national treasures and, first, he will mention Gainsbourg telling a 23-year-old Whitney Houston on live television that he would like to have sex with her; then he’ll mention Gainsbourg’s reggae version of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise.”
As the subtitle implies, Joann Sfar’s biopic Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life has room for the latter but not the former. Based on Sfar’s graphic novel, the film is a loving look at a troubled artist, which substitutes pop psychology for real insight. But with the spindly Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth) playing Gainsbourg’s demons, it’s also a lot of fun.
As Sfar tells it, Jewish self-loathing drove Gainsbourg, born Lucien Ginsburg, to drink and self-destruction, his internalized anti-Semitism externalized by Jones as a giant-schnozzed marionette, a caricature out of the Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer. Young Lucien (Kacey Mottet Klein) goes to the police station demanding his yellow star; he grows up to be a frustrated painter (an excellent Eric Elmosnino) who gives it up for an equally chancy musician’s life. It would turn out to be a great call.
What follows is a wild collage of fact and fantasy, in which Gainsbourg has sex with his first wife (Deborah Grall) in Salvador Dali’s bed, sells his first hit to a wacky quartet of Bohemian gnomes, and embarks on a brief affair with Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) and a longer one with Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon). He is an unrepentant heel, immortalizing his full-figured first wife as a “Hippopodame” and making his second (Alice Carel) drive her unlicensed husband to an assignation with cabaret star Juliette Gréco (Anna Mouglalis). But we forgive him all of it for the songs, sung convincingly by Elmosnino, from the early jazz standards (on which many a songwriter would rest his laurels) to his forays into “ye-ye” (amusingly belted by Sara Forestier as teen sensation France Gall), funk, new wave and, although the film ignores it, rap.
Like Gainsbourg’s wordplay, which resists translation, Sfar has made a film that resists export. Those not well acquainted with Gainsbourg’s oeuvre will wonder why nightclubgoers derisively call him “Gainsbarre” or why, in one scene, his head is replaced by a giant cabbage. (Gainsbarre was his television alter-ego, the cabbage a reference to his 1976 album L’homme à tête de chou, or “cabbage-head man.”)
Out of the cabbage emerges a new face with jug-ears and a Pinocchio nose— ’barre having consumed ’bourg—but by the next scene, Gainsbourg’s face has recovered its former contours. It’s a loss of nerve, as is the film’s omission of Gainsbourg’s provocative duet with his 12-year-old daughter Charlotte, “Lemon Incest,” and its depiction of his final relationship, with a junkie whom he christened Bambou and tried to turn into a singer, as a last chance for redemptive love.
Sfar doesn’t offer an explanation for his hero’s descent into sleaze, but he brings much visual wit to his feature film debut.
A Heroic Life
Directed by Joann Sfar
With Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Doug Jones and Laetitia Casta.