Despite its unusually introspective tone and surrealistic stylization, renowned graphic novelist Joann Sfar's impressive writing/directing debut Gainsbourg: Vie héroïque, (Gainsbourg: Heroic Life, a.k.a. Gainsbourg: Je T'Aime... Moi Non Plus) still relies, like all biopics, on a certain measure of audience familiarity with the subject--in this case legendary French singer/songwriter/provocateur Serge Gainsbourg. Given that Gainsbourg--who died of a heart attack in 1991 at age 62--is as obscure in the United States as he is infamous in France, the picture will undoubtedly need copious critical plaudits and strong word of mouth from stateside devotees to reach cruising altitude. Once there, however, strong platform figures should become self-sustaining.
A restless amalgam of Bob Dylan, Frank Zappa and Paul Anka, with a face and physique frequently caricatured as something akin to a gargoyle, Serge Gainsbourg remains a deeply controversial and divisive figure throughout Europe--revered for his uncanny musical genius, reviled for his flamboyant and recklessly indulgent lifestyle. Channeled with mesmerizing authenticity by character actor Eric Elmosnino, Gainsbourg is depicted as an almost classically tragic figure--a tortured genius forever at odds with his own identity as a Jew. Born to Russian Jewish immigrants who fled the Russian revolution and raised his for a crucial part of his childhood during the Nazi occupation of France, Gainsbourg emerges in young adulthood as an aimless yet talented nihilist, a musician/painter with more natural inspiration than profitable avenues for exercising it. In Paris, however, the bohemian life is never that far removed from the stepladder to success, and the stars soon begin shining on the young Lucien Gainsbourg--soon to adopt the splashier moniker of "Serge" as his celebrity swells.
Those hoping for a comprehensive biopic should be forewarned--Sfar's treatment here is fluid and episodic, skipping many of the most scandalous chapters in favor of speculative recreations of private moments for which there is no factual corroboration. Unlike the more rigorous, Oscar-winning La Vie En Rose, this is a highly interpretive work about a deeply misunderstood figure whose exploits could easily fill a dozen films and still not shed so much as a single shard of light on his myriad contradictions. Gainsbourg's brief affair with Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) lasts only a few minutes, while his turbulent marriage to British actress Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon), the relationship that sired singer/actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, is spared most of the more embarrassing episodes with which Gainsbourg aficionados are undoubtedly familiar.
Sfar's riskiest move by far, however, is the imaginary figure of "La Gueule" (Doug Jones), a grotesque alter-ego with an exaggerated Semitic proboscis whose occasional haunting of Gainsbourg at crucial or unwelcome moments in his life provides the audience an unsettling outward manifestation of celebrity self-loathing and ethnic self-consciousness at its most vulgar and vulnerable. Yet vulgar is precisely the persona that Gainsbourg increasingly projected to the world, a persona that would one day become inseparable from reality, as Gainsbourg appeared to fall prey to the very demons he himself created. Insofar as La Gueule reminds the audience--and Gainsbourg--of the nagging issues that both drive and plague him, it's a useful and intriguing device. But Sfar is clearly aiming for more, hoping to unlock the frustrating cipher of Gainsbourg in a way that will give audiences the kind of emotional access the real Gainsbourg repeatedly denied them. To that end, the device is a resounding failure, less for its jarring impact than for the tacit confession that Gainsbourg simply cannot be understood but through the deployment of an overt theatrical gimmick.
Despite its ultimate lack of profundity, Gainsbourg is certain to still be a sufficiently engaging and meaningful experience to enthrall the initiated while stimulating the curiosity of the uninitiated. Though neither is likely to exit the theater feeling any richer in their appreciation for Gainsbourg himself, their appreciation for the achievement of a supremely ambitious film should be unequivocal.
Distributor: Music Box Films
Cast: Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Doug Jones, Anna Mouglalis and Sara Forestier
Director/Screenwriter: Joann Sfar
Producers: Marc Du Pontavice and Didier Lupfer
Genre: Biography; French-language, subtitled
Running time: 130 min.
Release date: September 2 ltd.