Serge Gainsbourg‘s career spanned an astonishing 25 albums, a falling in and then falling out with the French public, a rotating cast of gorgeous beauties that found their way both into his bed and into his music and ultimately, he left an indelible mark on the pop culture landscape that continues to resonate to this day. A figure as big as any American cultural icon, attempting to fit his life into the standard running time of a feature length film is certainly difficult and unenviable task, particularly for a debut feature film. But for all the ambition that comic artist turned film writer and director Joann Sfar puts into “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life,” the film does everything but get to the core of what made Gainsbourg such an iconic figure.
The most talked about narrative device Sfar puts to use in the film is also, unfortunately, one of the most distracting and ineffective parts of the film as well. Going back to his comic roots, Sfar populates the film with two giant, odd looking puppets that only Gainsbourg can see that act as his conscience/inner voice. These puppets pop up during random moments in the film and help advise or encourage the singer to do various things. It’s a little weird the first time you see it but instead of growing into an organic part of the storytelling process, every time these papier mache looking creations waddle on screen, we were taken right out of the picture. It’s an interesting approach that might’ve worked had Sfar actually offered any insight into Gainsbourg as a singer, father, icon or regular person. But the film is such a disjointed mess that these puppets only add to the sloppy, thrown together feel the picture never quite shakes off.
The film starts with Gainsbourg as a young child living in Paris’ Jewish ghetto during WWII. This opening bit is easily the film’s worst and Sfar’s take on Gainsbourg as a smart-alecky, precocious child is nearly nauseating. When Gainsbourg isn’t being forced by his father — who hates popular music — to play classical piano, he’s at art school where he smooth talks one of the nude models posing in the adult classes into having coffee with him. This sort of patterning of Gainsbourg’s adult behavior as a small child is simply not believable. Sfar also spends considerable time her establishing the importance and pride Gainsbourg feels being a Jew, but as we’ll see, its just one of the many facets of Gainsbourg that are addressed and then left alone never to be revisited, almost like Sfar is ticking off a checklist of thematic elements that need to be visited.
The film then leaps forward almost two decades when Gainsbourg has aspirations to become a painter and is earning his keep as barroom pianist. He manages to get his break during a performance at a drag bar and then before you know it Gainsbourg is signed, recording albums, and writing material for other artists. If it sounds rushed and all over the place, that’s because the film is. Gainsbourg’s father is suddenly a big supporter of his son, but what has changed his opinion and their relationship, other than his son’s growing popularity, is barely explained.
By and large the biggest problem with the film is Sfar’s hopscotching script. With no connective thematic or narrative tissue, the film relies far too heavily on an audience’s in depth knowledge of Gainsbourg before entering the theater for it to work. We here are at the The Playlist like to think of ourselves as some pretty serious music heads, but even we had trouble at times figuring out just what era we were in or why the film had jumped ahead for little reason. Sfar does touch upon all the popular stories and affairs that those with even a casual interest in pop culture would know, but then he will do things like show a quick clip of Gainsbourg performing a song from his Nazi-themed album “Rock Around The Bunker” with zero context that throws all the previously and heavily underlined Jewish pride right out of whack (unless you get home and look up the album to find out it was the singer’s darkly humorous take on the suffering his family endured during the war).
Sfar also fails to put Gainsbourg in the context of the general public or in the musical climate of his era. While older French audiences may already take for granted Gainsbourg place in history, for younger and particularly international viewers there is a great opportunity missed to at least give an account of what Gainsbourg meant to music in France during his most popular reign. Needless to say, when the film moves on to address his stylistic shifts in the ’70s and ’80s to accommodate changing public tastes there is again very little to explain how he himself felt about those things. Moreover, there is nothing about what inspired the man himself aside from one brief and ultimately throwaway scene where he tries to take guitar lessons to learn to play like Django Reinhardt.
Luckily for Sfar, he gets a great cast lined up to keep the film from completely falling apart. Eric Elmosnino shines as Gainsbourg transmitting as much of the conflicted emotions, joy, lust and pain that Sfar’s script affords with tremendous ease and charm. Laetitia Casta is radiantly sexy and buoyant as Brigitte Bardot, and the segment portraying their brief but all consuming affair is one of the most memorable and pleasant portions of the film. Tragically, the best performance of all is by Lucy Gordon as Jane Birkin. Gordon, who sadly took her own life during the film’s post-production, is wonderful here in what surely would’ve been a breakthrough performance.
But, the cast can’t do it all, and running over two hours long, “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” suffers from the rare problem of being overstuffed yet incomplete. Leaving the film, you feel you’ve still only had a brief glimpse of the man and not a portrait. The musical performances are good, but don’t particularly stand out (certainly not the way they do in films like “La vie en rose” or even “Walk The Line“) and as a whole the film leaves you wanting more (just not anymore from Sfar).
If “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” says anything, its that a life as grand as Serge Gainsbourg’s is perhaps best left to a cable mini-series, not stuffed into the constraints of a feature film. But as it stands, “Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque)” isn’t the dazzling overview we hoped for nor is it even the standard run through we would’ve grudgingly accepted. Instead, Sfar’s film is ill-conceived from the first reel setting up a disappointing ride that never shakes that feeling. [C]