Unconventional, imaginative, nothing if not audacious, “Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life” is a portrait of creativity from the inside, a serious yet playful attempt to find an artistic way to tell an emotional truth.
“Heroic” may seem like an odd word to attach to a man like the legendary songwriter and provocateur Serge Gainsbourg, a giant of 20th century French popular music but also a man to whom creating outrage and scandal was second nature.
Best known in this country for “Je T’Aime ... Moi Non Plus,” the racy duet he recorded with British actress Jane Birkin (actress Charlotte Gainsbourg is their daughter), Gainsbourg is celebrated in France for the songs he wrote for, and the affairs he sometimes had with, beautiful women like Juliette Greco, Marianne Faithfull, Françoise Hardy and Brigitte Bardot.
But to writer-director Joann Sfar, a celebrated French comic book artist and musician who won the Cesar for best first film for “Gainsbourg,” the songwriter’s life is heroic because he lived deeply in his own imagination and did continual battle with the personal demons who shared that space with him.
Because of his own artistic inclinations, Sfar is well placed to provide this kind of portrait. Working with actor Eric Elmosnino (who won a Cesar for his performance), Sfar wants us to feel Gainsbourg’s emotions as he feels them, wants to give us a report from within the mind of this gifted, tortured individual.
A lifelong Gainsbourg fan who knows the man’s life inside out, Sfar has nevertheless subtitled the film, in its French version, “un conte,” a fairy tale, to emphasize that it is emotional texture and not painstakingly literal truth that he’s after.
So Sfar spends time on Gainsbourg’s younger years and on the Jewish identity of this son of Russian-Jewish emigrants who was born Lucien Ginsburg in Paris in 1928.
The film’s opening vignette has Lucien as a small boy being told by a small girl that he is simply too ugly, a feeling that would always torment him. A child during the German occupation, Lucien is properly introduced in 1941 as a cocky, precocious 13-year-old (well played by Kacey Mottet-Klein), so defiantly Jewish he insists on being the first person in line to get the yellow star Jews were mandated to wear.
On the way home from that encounter, Lucien walks by an anti-Semitic poster and is horrified when, in the film’s boldest stroke, the bloated caricature on the wall comes to life and starts to follow him home.
That caricature morphs into La Gueule (the Face), an alter-ego who stays with Gainsbourg the rest of his life, giving bad advice and appealing to all his worst instincts.
As played by Doug Jones (the faun in “Pan’s Labyrinth” who endured five hours of daily makeup application), La Guele’s enormous nose, huge ears and terrifying, Nosferatu-inspired long fingers mark him as a truly fantastical creature who deftly epitomizes the doubts and insecurities that plagued Gainsbourg no matter how successful he became.
Despite his fears about his looks, as played by the compelling Elmosnino, Gainsbourg never had any difficulty getting beautiful women to pay attention to him, starting with fellow art student and future wife Elisabeth Levitsky (Deborah Grall), an acquaintance of Salvador Dali’s. They used the great man’s Paris apartment for their trysts.
Aside from his talent, what attracted women to Gainsbourg was his complex cocktail of personality traits, the way he could be almost simultaneously arrogant and insecure, shy and domineering.
Initially unsure about his ability, Gainsbourg began to find supporters, including Boris Vian and singer Juliette Greco (Anna Mouglalis). He began to write for pop star France Gall (Sara Forestier) but his most famous liaison was with the then-married Bardot (played with delightful sensual verve by Laetitia Casta).
Gainsbourg’s longest relationship was with Birkin (the late Lucy Gordon). And his music continued to be adventurous and controversial, never more so than when he collaborated with Jamaican stars Sly and Robbie to do a killer reggae version of French national anthem “La Marseillaise” that he called “Aux Armes Et Cetera.” When he played it in France, riots followed.
Though it’s clearly on his side, “Gainsbourg” doesn’t flinch when its subject goes deeper and deeper into alcoholism and bad behavior. Screenwriter Sfar’s final word on his difficult, fascinating man is “I prefer his lies to his truth,” his dreams to his reality. It’s not hard to see why.
‘Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life’
No MPAA rating
Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes
Playing: Nuart, West Los Angeles; Edwards University Town Center 6, Irvine