“Gainsbourg: a Heroic Life,” the new biopic about the iconic French songwriter is a playful, innovative film that skims along the surface of his life, without ever really plumbing the depths of the man, despite giving itself more than enough time to do so.
For Americans not overly familiar with the life of Serge Gainsbourg, this film could prove maddening. Rather than the story of his life, the film offers a series of moments. They are by and large well crafted by first-time writer director Joann Sfar, who made his name as a comic book writer. It’s entertaining, but there’s no thread to hold the thing together.
The film follows Gainsbourg’s from his early childhood, when he was Lucien Ginsburg, struggling with being a Russian Jew in World War II France, to his rise through the ranks of French pop music and his inevitable descent into alcoholism and general madness.
Throughout the film Gainsbourg’s internal struggles are played out for the audience to see via his being is prodded and coaxed by his tall, elegant, rat-faced doppelganger -- it's an amusing and effective techinique.
Eric Elmosnino is great as Gainsbourg. With his car-door ears, long pointed nose, droopy hangdog eyes, and the ever-present cigarette dangling from his mouth, you couldn’t ask for more. His Gainsbourg is bold, bashful, arrogant, sadistic, cagey and most importantly, he does al his own singing -- a totally believable rendering of the man.
Laetita Casta (best known stateside as the lingerie-clad vixen in the Chris Isaak video “Baby Did a Bad, Bad, Thing" -- we recommend hitting mute) makes a fantastic entrance, perfectly shot, as Bridgette Bardot. Asking a woman to capture the allure and playfulness of Bardot seems almost unfair, but Casta delivers. And if the film is any indication, Gainsbourg’s brief time with Bardot was the happiest of his life.
Despite being racked with self-doubt about his own “mug,” which he thought ugly, he nonetheless pursued beautiful younger woman throughout his life with a gusto that would make a frat boy blush. But the films stops short of showing just how lecherous and vile Gainsbourg could be. In 1986, when he was in his late 50s and Whitney Houston was in her early 20s, he drunkenly declared of the emerging pop star, “I want to (expletive) her,” as she sat next to him on live French television. This was not a run-of-the-mill Cassanova.
While each scene of “Gainsbourg” could stand alone, and the music is great, the whole is less than the sum of its parts, a problem exacerbated by the film’s length. It’s a bit like watching a slideshow that goes on and on… By the end it becomes clear that he had turned into a mean, self-absorbed drunk – how many times do we have to be shown that?