Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life Reviews
The Gallic equivalent of Frank Sinatra, Noel Coward and Shane MacGowan, Serge Gainsbourg was unique who redefined '60 and '70s national culture. It's incredible, then, what Sfar, a French comic-book artist, has managed to capture here. Eric Elmosnino miraculously nails Gainsbourg's louche, lupine suavity and beguiling vulnerability, and scenes of the composer's early life - a Fellini-esque fairytale where he's tutored by his vampiric puppet alter-ego, La Guele - are truly powerful. Inexplicably, the second hour lurches into rock biopic cliches - drugs, bad wigs, and the cheesy recreation of the hit composition.
However, there is still very much to enjoy and admire and if, like me, you are grinning from ear to ear at the vaguely retro cartooning of the title sequence then you may just appreciate the many incidental pleasures that make up the first 75 minutes or so of what follows. Director, Joann Sfar has imagination and flair for sure (his daring use of animation and puppetry helps to stop things feeling dry) and he has certainly paid homage to the man and, if nothing else, this will certainly rejuvenate interest in the music.
Eric Elmosino is terrific in the title role and just like Marion Cotillard before him, in that other flawed bio of an Icône française, he manages to transcend simple convincing impersonation to become the man totally (and there is NO lip-syncing the songs here either, as the cast use their own voices).
Special mentions: A suitably lusty and far too brief turn by Yolande Moreau as Fréhel. The cafe scene where the young Gainsbourg meets her is a joy. As is Sara Forestier - very funny as the cheeky France Gall.
I have to admit that Laetitia Casta's big glam entrance as Bardot left me a little breathless and is one of the film's most indulgent highlights - all thigh-high boots, leopard print, lush blonde tresses and mascara as the distinctive instrumental of 'The Initials BB' trumpets away on the soundtrack. It just couldn't be anyone else.
And the songs! In fact 'Gainsbourg' feels closer to being a musical bio-pic. Or, to be more precise, it's a musical homage - as the songs, staged with originality, poignancy and sheer fun, are always never less than reverential to the artistry of the man (including acknowledging that he was an accomplished painter) if not always telling us something about his character or propelling the story. Look out for what they do with 'Comic Strip' (I just wanted to jump up and cry "more, more!"), not to mention the scene when when we finally hear THAT song - it's a little surreal and quite hysterical. Much like the film actually.
As much as the spirited and sexy biopic "Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life" assumes the audience already knows about the work of the legendary composer and musician, it does not hurt the movie as it takes more of a psychological and expressionistic view, starting with the cool animated opening titles, as Gainsbourg is advised by his walking id(Doug Jones,) who also interacts with other characters, well into adulthood. That's when he gets to live the life he always dreamed of as a child with a panoply of beautiful women, and smoking cigarettes that make him look cool and which will also be the end of him. But if he could also make great songs like 'Bonnie and Clyde' with Brigitte Bardot(Laetitia Casta), I'm more than willing to look the other way.
Otherwise, the film gives a fairly detailed account of Gainsbourg's rise from persecuted Russian Jew to struggling painter to iconic superstar, followed by the boozy deterioration where his image as an eccentric scoundrel began to overshadow his achievements (a late haircut scene depicts his slide into self-parody in a clever, metaphorical way). The casting is stunningly perfect, particularly lookalike Eric Elmosnino as Gainsbourg (you truly sense why gorgeous women couldn't resist him, despite his homeliness), Laetitia Casta as Brigitte Bardot (her naked "Comic Strip" dance lingers in memory long after the film's over), Sara Forestier as the coquettish France Gall and tragedy-bound Lucy Gordon as Jane Birkin. Late director Claude Chabrol also adds an amusing, farewell cameo as a label man shocked by Gainsbourg's unveiling of the infamous "Je T'Aime...Moi Non Plus."
Some may complain that the script skims over too much of Gainsbourg's long decline. Even the scandalous "Lemon Incest" (a suggestive song recorded with his pubescent daughter Charlotte) goes unmentioned. But the film can't cover everything -- this was a life of multiple phases and consistent infamy, and even 130 minutes don't seem like enough time to properly capture him.
des marionnettes grandeurs nature.