Both evocative and faithful in its depiction of the famed French singer’s lascivious life, “Gainsbourg (vie heroique)” offers up a feast of memorable chansons and an almost endless parade of drop-dead-gorgeous muses. Debut feature by bestselling comicbook artist Joann Sfar traces its subject’s career — from the jazz-influenced melodies of the early ’60s to the electronic ramblings of the ’80s — in episodic bursts that combine flesh-and-blood lookalikes with cartoons, puppetry and flashbacks to a childhood marked by the German Occupation. Solidly entertaining biopic opened strong Jan. 20, with rosy overseas prospects.
For those already versed in Serge Gainsbourg’s mythic appetite for puns, women and countless Gitanes cigarettes, there may not be much to discover in this “tale” (as the opening credits claim) of a musician who drew widespread media attention in France, especially during his alcohol-soaked latter years. Yet while Sfar’s mostly chronological script strains at times to cram together every last biographical tidbit, it often does so with creativity, humor and a strong sense of visual storytelling.
Born Lucien Ginsburg to strict Russian-Jewish parents (Razvan Vasilescu, Dinara Droukarova), the young Serge (Kacey Mottet-Klein) witnessed the Nazi occupation of France firsthand. Such memories are shown to have haunted the singer throughout his life, as witnessed in the opening reel when — in one of several directorial flights of fancy — a giant anti-Semitic caricature comes to life and chases Serge down the street.
Interested from an early age in drawing and painting (for which Sfar’s own sketches serve as props), but not really into music, the older Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino, a dead ringer) enrolls in art school, while earning cash on the side as a cafe piano player. Proximity to the night world brings him into contact with legendary Saint-Germain-des-Pres personalities Boris Vian (Philippe Katerine) and Juliette Greco (Anna Mouglalis), and he soon finds renown as a songwriter and erstwhile performer.
Narrative’s first half shows the singer’s climb to stardom as a succession of artistic fits, bedroom charades and songs highlighted by very clever use of the French language, especially in early compositions like “Le Poinconneur des lilas” and “Elaeudanla Teiteia.” The action in this section is nearly nonstop, and the colorful lensing by Guillaume Schiffman (“OSS 117: Lost in Rio”) delves into an array of blue and red filters as it mixes biography with dreamlike fantasy.
Starting in the late ’60s, the ladies truly begin to dominate Gainsbourg’s already abusive lifestyle. First, there’s Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta, another dead ringer), whose awe-inspiring eroticism is shown to be the inspiration for hit songs like “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Comic Strip.” And then there’s Jane Birkin (the late Lucy Gordon), who instantly falls for Gainsbourg as he grows ever more intoxicated and aloof. Their artistic collaboration results in such gems as the scandalous “Je t’aime … moi non plus” and the brilliant concept album “Histoire de Melody Nelson.”
Sfar stuffs the soundtrack with one classic tune after another, which help keep the film flowing even as the story (like Gainsbourg) begins to run out of steam as the ’80s approach. Attempts at entering the singer’s psyche via an imaginary alter ego (Doug Jones) are sometimes amusing but don’t illuminate the dark side of a character who often seems to be having loads fun while caring little about the consequences.
Thesps are more remarkable for their resemblances to their real-life figures than for their dramatic engagement. Still, a few impersonations — especially Sara Forestier imitating pop sweetheart France Gall — are hilarious.
Both Christian Marti’s decors and Pascaline Chavanne’s costumes do a fine job evoking an epoch that seems worlds away from the political throes of May ’68.