REVIEW: Overstyled Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life Fumbles Singer-Songwriter's Myth

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The bold, relatively brief life of Serge Gainsbourg, the French singer, songwriter and svengali who died in 1991, is twice removed from the story told by Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life. First-time writer and director Joann Sfar has said that polishing the fine points of that life -- ceding to biographical "truth" -- was of no interest to him. A top-flight fan and best-selling comic book artist, Sfar was intent on avoiding the brash outlines of a biopic in favor of a certain sort of homage, the tender evocation of style and personality in place of strict chronology and narrative arc. A parallel determination to inhabit his hero's life with an intensely personal, interpretive gusto bends the film back into a more conventional shape; the big moments play out with the giddy gratification of fan fiction. Both abstract and very specific, Sfar's inspirations abound such that they frequently overshadow those of his subject.

The first half-hour is devoted to young Lucien Ginsburg (Kacey Mottet-Klein), a Russian Jew in World War II-era Paris uninterested in music but eager to flout the yellow star -- and needle the authorities issuing them -- he is ordered to wear. Lucien slips into imagined, animated form during the insouciant credits sequence, a trend that continues across a film that moves between strong, visual evocations of the invented Gainsbourg -- a whimsical, subversive figure of outsized sensuality -- and the private experience of a disjointed psyche. A hideous, many-limbed blob emerges from an anti-Semitic propaganda poster and keeps Lucien in lumbering company; later a devil with glowing, slitted eyes, a Tucan beak and protuberant ears stands in for Gainsbourg's self-loathing and appetite for mischief. (Director of photography Guillaume Schiffman's contemplative eye balances fragmented and fanciful scenes with rich contrasts of color and light.) Early on talent is framed as a form of possession, and the sublimely casual Gainsbourg its reluctant host.

What he's more fervently committed to, of course, is women. A shameless flirt in short pants, by the time Gainsbourg is grown and inhabiting the body of French actor Eric Elmosnino, he is a Beaudelaire-reciting, turtleneck-wearing, Gitane-dangling, full-blown femme-killer. Women are his intuitive muse, but painting is first love. If he must write a tune to get the knickers dropping, he will, but Sfar emphasizes the extent to which Gainsbourg relied on the example of artists like Django Reinhardt and Charles Aznavour to help orient him to the mid-century's pop currency of choice. With no stage presence and the name of a "hairdresser's son," as Sfar has it the laissez-faire, piano bar-dwelling Frenchman had to be led by the bridle out of the bedrooms of singers like Juliette Gréco (Anna Mouglalis) and into the spotlight.

The beginning of that journey is where Gainsbourg starts to fray. Feverishly imagined anecdotes -- Brigitte Bardot's (Laetitia Casta) brief stay on the scene is pure pop candy -- are strung together along increasingly tenuous narrative and psychological lines. It may simply be where the beginners are divided from the advanced students of Gainsbourgia. A marriage and children pass by with an icy blonde's glare, and the progression from success to self-destruction and an unseemly sense of entitlement is presented as understood. Of course it is, in your splashier biopics, but Gainsbourg and Gainsbourg are set up with too much style and ambivalence for autopilot assumptions. His legendary sexuality is another given. A few shots of full frontal and an actual devil to point to are poor substitutes for exposure and depth of character.

Gainsbourg's proud parents (Razvan Vasilescu and Dinara Droukarova) are a grounding force amid the heady invocation of what Elizabeth Hardwick, writing about Billie Holiday, called "the expensive martyrdom of the 'entertainer.'" His romance with Jane Birkin (the late Lucy Gordon) plays out over several lovely scenes of encounter, infatuation, love and creative partnership. The latter is an apt showcase for musical arranger Olivier Daviaud, who guided the actors through credible interpretations of Gainsbourg's songs.

The eventual reveal of "Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus," a song recorded and released with Birkin, is the only original recording used in the film, and cause for a cheeky cameo that I won't spoil here. A sexy, slightly embarrassing slow jam, "Je T'Aime Moi Non Plus" was conceived as a paean to Bardot; their version, recorded before Birkin's, was not released until 1986. Bardot pants and murmurs her adoration over a rolling, baroque organ melody, to Gainsbourg's teasing diffidence. Gainsbourg is a tribute of similarly excessive intimacy, though Sfar's heated, mouth-to-mouth engagement with his subject lacks the countervailing perspective -- the invention and insolence -- that gave Gainsbourg and his work its singular edge. Even love songs need some distance to breathe on their own.