Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (2010)
Much like the title character of this film, Gainsbourg employs a variety of tools to express itself. An enchanting animated credit sequence, fantasy elements and a linear yet piecemeal story line. Though the result may sketch an outline of the artist rather than provide a complete portrait, this biopic certainly doesn’t paint by the numbers.
A precocious Jewish child in Nazi occupied France, Lucien Ginsberg impresses his school friends with erotic drawings and flirts with models many years his senior. Later changing his name to Serge Gainsbourg, he aspires to be a painter but finds more success as a pianist and songwriter. An alter ego, that behaves like some demonic Jiminy Cricket, not only urges him to abandon his art and concentrate on music but also encourages him to leave his wife for singer Juliette Gréco. It’s not the last time the man with the ‘ugly mug’ beds a renowned beauty.
This film is a high-wire act, in which the alter ego serves as the ringmaster. Performed by Doug Jones (Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth, The Shape of Water), its design caricatures Gainsbourg’s acknowledged ugliness by grossly exaggerating his heavy-lidded eyes, prominent nose and jug ears. Other manifestations of Gainsbourg’s self-loathing are a Nazi propagandised Jew and the Cabbage-Head Man. But it’s the alter ego that dominates, and when it is absent from the screen the movie tends to lag and its confusing narrative becomes more pronounced. Wives and children suddenly enter the frame and then disappear shortly afterwards, locations abruptly change and the ending arrives unexpectedly. Despite this, the film’s delightfully comic tone remains remarkably consistent.
Based on his own graphic novel, Gainsbourg was the first film written and directed by comic book artist Joann Sfar, who also appears briefly as Georges Brassens.
“I love Gainsbourg too much to pin him to reality. I’m less interested in his truths than his lies”
Joann Sfar (writer / director)
Biopic makes no mention of Gainsbourg’s contribution to film, either as an actor or composer. The only fleeting reference to cinema is when Gainsbourg visits girlfriend Jane Birkin while she is filming La piscine with Alain Delon.