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Gainsbourg (vie heroique): Film Review

The Bottom Line

An impressive performance by Eric Elmosnino as the legendary French singer cannot overcome the lack of a coherent storyline about a less than heroic life.

Director/screenwriter

Joann Sfar

Cast

Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Doug Jones, Anna Mouglalis

The latest name to roll off the French biopic production line that produced Piaf, Sagan and Chanel is that of Serge Gainsbourg, a talented singer-songwriter of the 1950s and 1960s who devoted his later years to blowing musical raspberries.

PARIS -- The latest name to roll off the French biopic production line that produced Piaf, Sagan and Chanel is that of Serge Gainsbourg, a talented singer-songwriter of the 1950s and 1960s who devoted his later years to blowing musical raspberries. What was heroic about Gainsbourg's life? If anything, his vast consumption of booze and cigarettes. This is a hero for rebellious adolescents, and while Gainsbourg (vie heroique) will strike a chord with local sensibilities, non-Gallic audiences may be underwhelmed by this portrayal of an artist whose main claim to world fame is a pop song in which a woman simulates an orgasm.

Writer-director Joann Sfar's background is in strip cartoons, and it shows. He strings together a narrative but fails to construct a plot. The singer's early years as a precocious Jewish child in Nazi-occupied Paris are imaginatively treated, and Eric Elmosnino's impersonation of Gainsbourg in his drink-sodden progress from struggling painter to cabaret performer to aging proto-punk is a highly impressive piece of work.

In fact, the first half of the movie, in which we meet some of France's greatest postwar music hall stars such as Juliette Greco, Boris Vian and the Freres Jacques, is lively and interesting enough. Sfar even invents a Gainsbourg alter ego, a grotesque double in a latex mask who proposes a Faustian deal, prompting the singer to concede that "selling your soul to the devil has its good points."

Then Gainsbourg has an affair with Brigitte Bardot, success and notoriety come knocking and the movie loses its way. Sfar dutifully details Gainsbourg's transgressive highlights, but there is a monotony to alcoholic decline that he is unable to disguise and the end comes as something of a relief.

Production values are high especially Sfar's engaging use of fantasy, blending animation and marionettes. The supporting cast of Yolande Moreau (Frehel), Anna Mouglalis (Greco), Philippe Katerine (Vian) and Lucy Gordon (Jane Birkin) are impeccable, while Laetitia Casta as Bardot is in a role that calls for little acting ability.

But the movie is too much an act of hero-worship for there to be any critical distance. Cliche lurks, and the portrayal of Gainsbourg will reinforce stereotypes of the suave, cynical, self-indulgent French male. Sfar makes no attempt to get behind Gainsbourg's refusal to face up to the addictions that he knew were killing him. A more interesting movie remains to be made examining why the French have built a cult around a man who so clearly harbored a death wish.

Released in France: Jan. 20
Production companies: One World Films, Studio 37, Focus Features International, France 2 Cinema, Lilou Films, Xilam Films
Cast: Eric Elmosnino, Lucy Gordon, Laetitia Casta, Doug Jones, Anna Mouglalis, Mylene Jampanoi, Kacey Mottet-Klein, Razvan Vasilescu, Dinara Droukarova, Philippe Katerine, Yolande Moreau
Director/screenwriter: Joann Sfar
Producers: Marc du Pontavice, Didier Lupfer
Director of photography: Guillaume Schiffman
Production designer: Christian Marti
Music: Olivier Daviaud
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Maryline Monthieux
Sales: Universal Pictures International
No rating, 130 minutes