Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991) was a homely, brilliant French pop singer who conquered more of Europe than Napoleon. Along the way, the singer-songwriter drank a river of liquor and slept with Brigitte Bardot and every beautiful woman he wanted.
All of this with a cigarette going and one eye glued to the door, waiting for a jack-booted monster to take everything away.
Gainsbourg’s songs were pastiches – French music hall, le jazz hot, Baudelaire, Charles Aznovour, funk, psychedelia and reggae. Getting in the spirit, his filmmaker biographer, Joann Sfar, has created a mash-up style to follow his always-conquering, forever-falling-apart hero:
We meet Serge at age 10, already a chain-smoker, following a beautiful girl. “Can I put my hand in yours?” he asks.
“No, you’re too ugly.”
Too Jewish as well, perhaps, even if the girl doesn’t say so. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life’s opening third is devoted to Serge’s formative years in Nazi-occupied Paris. We see Serge (né Lucien Ginsburg) wearing a yellow star, avoiding police round-ups, vainly pursuing women and smoking like a steamship.
The scenes are recorded with a brisk, playful humour reminiscent of early Truffaut. (Sfar pays homage to the French New Wave by casting director Claude Chabrol in a bit part.) Still, there are contemporary Hollywood touches. Gainsbourg is being chased and lectured to throughout by a puppet, a grotesque Nazi caricature of the scheming Jew. And the papier-mâché creation has lobster claws out of Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands.
There’s also a perfectly placed Woody Allen pun from Annie Hall – Serge at the piano being harassed by his bourgeois father, who wants his son to grow up to play properly.
“ Joue! Joue! Joue!,” the old man hollers.
Jew! Jew! Jew!
Sfar’s film comes happily alive in the middle third when Serge, now married, begins to make his way in fifties Paris bohemia, overcoming a native shyness to seduce audiences with the ecstatic wordplay of his songs. Women – wives, mistresses and countless one-night stands – become a lifelong obstacle course.
In one memorable scene, Gainsbourg’s first wife escorts him (a true poet, Serge never learned to drive) to an assignation with the lush, ripe chanteuse, Juliette Gréco. Predictably, a fight breaks out, with Madame Gainsbourg asking a series of difficult questions. Prompting Serge’s career-planning puppet to appear over his shoulder, whispering:
“Next time, let’s take a cab.”
Although from certain angles he looks uncomfortably close to Mr. Bean, actor Eric Elmosnino is convincing as Gainsbourg. And the singer-songwriter’s fans will be glad to know his film bio is stocked with memorable performances of favourite songs.
There is a stirring romp in Brigitte Bardot’s flat with Serge lolling about in narcotic bliss in a bed as B.B. (Laetitia Casta) does a striptease to Comic Strip. Later, we find our hero, high as a steeple again, wading in a bath with Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon) as their big hit, Je t’aime .... moi non plus laps over them.
After a while, however, maybe two-thirds through the film, we begin to understand why Bardot, Birkin and all Gainsbourg’s lovers took leave of the film’s hero. The road of excess may lead to the palace of wisdom, as William Blake famously said. But who wants to drive the car?
It’s no fun looking after a determined, self-justified alcoholic; or even watching him waste away. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life accepts its subject on his own terms. And the compromise feels like capitulation before its hero’s last record spins to a close.
The death of a ladies man is pretty grim sport after the ladies have gone.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life
- Directed and written by Joann Sfar
- Starring Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta and Claude Chabrol
- Classification: 14A