This oddball, sexy, dangerous debut from writer/director Joann Sfar might be accused of being extreme if it didn’t have such an extreme character at its core. Pop music superstar Serge Gainsbourg is probably less familiar to American audiences than his actress daughter Charlotte, but this film effortlessly makes the case that his life is among the most dramatic of the 20th Century — even if you were to eliminate the bits where he makes the strange, electrifying music that brought him fame.
Gainsbourg, born Jewish (Ginsberg), survived by hiding in the French countryside during the Nazi occupation. He also survived creatively through a vivid inner life, which in boyhood manifested itself in a grand comic-book mythology. Sfar, also a comic book artist, brings the imaginary world into the real one through animation and Michel Gondry-esque puppetry. Giving up on drawing and painting as young man, Gainsbourg later defects to pop music. But he always stayed faithful to his one true love: beautiful women.
The movie dramatizes several of his legendary affairs, including a memorable sequence where Bridget Bardot (Laetitia Casta) improvises a strip tease with a bedsheet to one of his tunes. Of course, like all pop stars who spread their love around too much, he ends up tasting the flip side: loneliness and despair.
The last part of the film (the loneliness and despair part) is not even as close to as much fun as the expressionistic childhood and the scenes of Gainsbourg’s rise to fame. But it does allow actor Eric Elmosnino, who plays Gainsbourg, to show his incredible range. Elmosnino has been winning awards at film festivals left and right (Tribeca, César) for this performance, and justly so. It is a phenomenal turn which has put him on my radar the same way Marion Cotillard popped up after her performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose.
I wish this film was longer. Maybe the filmmakers have cherry-picked only the most fascinating bits from Gainsbourg’s life and the rest was boring. But it seemed like there were more stories to be told and more cigarettes left in the pack. I can’t say you’ll walk away with a solid sense of who Gainsbourg was — a scoundrel? a musical savant? a revolutionary? — but perhaps that’s a truer form of biography. The traces of our lives don’t always fit in a neat box, even though physical remains do. The subtitle of the film, “A Heroic Life,” is not wrong, but it’s too small a definition. Gainsbourg, as portrayed, is larger than life. He is a hero, a villain, a visionary and a killer soundtrack.
The film opens August 31st in New York and will be hitting various other cities around the U.S. through November. Music Box Films, the relatively new company (2007) who brought us Tell No One and The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo is distributing.