I went into Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) knowing next to nothing about the man and came out knowing just a little more, but having fallen utterly in love with Serge and also with Paris and its old school sense of celebrity, which no longer exists.
The film by Joann Sfar is an adaptation of a graphic novel about the legendary and complex Serge Gainsbourg, written by Sfar himself. If you have read the graphic novel, which is pretty unlikely unless you are a super fan, you will see that the bizarre surrealist concepts would appear to be rather tricky to turn into a film. But it is the unusual aspects of the novel that make the film more than just a normal biopic and run the risk of being self-inflated and boring to anyone other than the subject’s biggest fans.
The film begins with the young Lucien Ginsberg, later to be called Serge Gainsbourg asking a girl “Can I put my hand in yours?” and is rebuffed cruelly. “No” comes the reply “You’re too ugly”.
And so begins Lucien’s destructive relationship with his looks. His feelings about his face, or mug as he refers to it, are linked to his Jewish roots. Lucien, played by Éric Elmosnino, is brought up in German-occupied Paris during the war. It is here that we first meet his alter ego, a huge rotund beak-nosed caricature, that will have a reincarnation later in the film.
Whether the portrayal of a boyhood Lucien is accurate or not is unclear, but it is compelling nonetheless. He is a precocious, witty child who mocks his father who is trying to teach him to play classical piano and the authorities who make him wear a yellow star.
It is early on that we learn of his passions for women, music and art. We see him asking a model to strip so he can draw her, and although it’s slightly uncomfortable to watch it provides an insight into his already advanced mind.
The film then goes on to document his rise to fame and various relationships with different women. If you didn’t know anything about his life before then it can get rather confusing as he falls in and out of different marriages.
Serge Gainsbourg famously had a relationship with Brigitte Bardot who is played by Laetitia Casta. Casta is convincing in the role and definitely has the looks to pull it off. Elmosnino and Casta ooze sexuality when they are on screen together. It is a joy to watch the intimacy created when Gainsbourg plays the piano while the famous actress dances around wearing just a sheet – it is drenched in glamour and classic romance.
After the end of his affair with Bardot, Gainsbourg meets Jane Birkin, played by the late Lucy Gordon. Gordon is wonderful in the role – beautiful, playful and serious at the same time. Gordon tragically committed suicide just after the filming finished. It was with Birkin that Gainsbourg famously sang the highly erotic duet “Je t’aime… moi non plus” , which the song actually suggests was written for Bardot not her.
As Gainsbourg ages, his self destructive nature grows increasingly. We see the man who is still considered a musical hero, become a drunk and fall apart.
Elmosnio is perfect in the role of Gainsbourg and there is an uncanny resemblance between the two. As he chain smokes his way through the film, stumbling with women and playing the piano, it is easy to see why Gainsbourg became something of sex symbol.
There is a poignancy to the film, apparent from the opening sequence to the finale. Gainsbourg lived a unique life and his relationships fascinate. Alter egos appear to remind us of the demons the man was dealing with. You’ll leave the film wanting to learn more about this intriguing, but infuriating character.
Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) opens up the doors to a remarkable man, who had a huge impact on music, to a wider audience than just the French. Yes, it can be confusing at times but it is erotic, moving and surreal, showing the gritty truth of Gainsbourg’s loneliness and underlying misery of a beautiful, talented man who considered his mug to be ugly.
Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) was released in the UK on July 30th.