Sometimes it’s easier for life to imitate art than vice versa—witness French cartoonist Joann Sfar’s first feature, an ambitious attempt to cage the career of legendary French singer-songwriter-scamp Serge Gainsbourg (1928-91), né Lucien Ginsburg, within the confines of a commercial showbiz biopic.
Sfar’s Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is itself somewhat heroic in its desire to bend the genre’s bars. Far less conventional than the international hit La vie en rose (Edith Piaf) but in no way as daring as I’m Not Here (Bob Dylan), it’s basically a fantasy of Gainsbourg’s life. Still, for all the 40-year-old filmmaker’s interpolated animations and puppets, for the insouciant, slapdash tone that characterizes his graphic novels, and for his protagonist’s proclivity for scandal, the movie is too timidly conceived by half.
Engaging if ploddingly linear, Gainsbourg tracks its subject’s progress from brash, precocious brat, a Jewish child in occupied France with a cigarette already dangling from his lip, to—as embodied by versatile look-alike and credible song and dance man Eric Elmosnino—the pop-culture provocateur whose calculated outrages ranged from the widely banned, Pope-condemned, heavy-breathing love duet “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus” to the “Nazi” concept album Rock Around the Bunker to a reggae version of “La Marseillaise” that drove French chauvinists mad. (Eulogized by French president Mitterrand as “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire,” Gainsbourg was, in the end, lionized.)
Gainsbourg is less a movie than a pageant with a posh, retro look. As the saga unfurls, Elmosnino’s hyperactive piano-player encounters a small galaxy of well-cast celebrities, beginning with the boozy chanteuse Fréhel (Yolande Moreau). Gainsbourg is later pursued by existentialist icon Juliette Gréco (Anna Mouglalis); attended by a talking black cat; declared formidable by the literary bon vivant Boris Vian (Philippe Katerine), himself a promising movie subject; and adopted by the popular vocal group Les Frères Jacques (Le Quatuor).
Moving from the grubby ’50s into the yé-yé ’60s, Gainsbourg writes a suggestive song for clueless nymphet France Gall (Sara Forestier) when suddenly Brigitte Bardot (supermodel Laetitia Casta) swoops into his life in thigh-high boots, with an Afghan on a leash, to duet on the brilliant, hilarious “Bonnie and Clyde,” and provide cartoon sound effects for the Pop Art single “Comic Strip” while perched on the piano, magnificently wrapped in a sheet. Bardot is followed by Swinging London It Girl Jane Birkin (the late Lucy Gordon). In a neat bit of reverse casting, the worried record producer persuaded to put out their epochal “Je T’aime” is played by Claude Chabrol.
A gargoyle among icons, the Eiffel tower prominently visible from his atelier window, Gainsbourg is accompanied throughout the film by an outsized apparition known as “La Gueule,” which represents his conventionally ugly, stereotypically Semitic (or French) mug. Sfar—whose best-known novels, The Rabbi’s Cat and Klezmer, draw on his Jewish heritage—advances a theory, more implicit than articulated, that Gainsbourg’s artistic personality as well as insolence was determined by his childhood experience of stigmatism and hypocrisy in wartime France. The filmmaker imagines young Lucien provocatively demanding to be first to wear the yellow star and intermittently cuts back to the little juif alone by the sea.
Twenty minutes shorter than its French version, Gainsbourg could easily lose another 20. The movie turns terminally wearisome and even anti-climactic with the triumph of the brain-lodging “Je T’aime” (which, alone among the movie’s numbers, is heard in its original version) and Gainsbourg’s descent into alcoholic dissolution. But even if Sfar’s movie outstays its welcome—inculcating the desire to see its subject light up his last Gitane and shuffle off this mortal coil—it will undoubtedly awaken interest in Gainsbourg and his work.