A dirty old drunkard with grotesque hooked nose, grizzled jowls and jug-ears protruding from lank gray hair: this is the most-recognized incarnation of French icon Serge Gainsbourg. Following a hugely successful career, as songwriter, musician, performer, actor, and filmmaker, he turned himself into a public figure in the last decade of his life: a chat show whore, a twisted version of his own worst proclivities, the obnoxious “Gainsbarre.”
Johann Sfar’s biopic stops just short of this point, as the eighties start, but offers some suggestion as to what brought him here. We see him first as Lucien Ginsburg, a young Russian Jew in Occupied Paris. His conflicted attitude towards ethnicity and appearance is corporealized in an exaggerated, spidery, puppet-like character who frequently turns up to offer id-advice, a mischievous imp on the shoulders of both boy and man.
This self-projection outstays his welcome somewhat, and is less endearing than the first imaginary figure conjured by the boy, a giant head that leaps from a “Beware the Jews” poster. These elements are part of Sfar’s fairytale approach (he is a successful graphic novelist, ably directing his first feature). He contributes also a charmingly animated credits sequence, and a general tone of enchantment to which Gainsbourg would surely have related.
The film is a eulogy to Sfar’s hero, and so whilst the more difficult aspects of his life are touched upon, they are rarely brought into focus. The boy’s Jewishness is sidelined – his puppet-self is more a personification of his ugliness – and the various controversies that Gainsbourg liked to whip up – notably having pretty young girls sing about dirty sex – are treated obliquely.
Gainsbourg was well-known for his endless success with beautiful women: Juliette Greco, Bridget Bardot, Jane Birkin, and countless others. Sfar risks a carousel ride, trotting them out one after the other, but in the ebullient spirit of the enterprise, they each blow through with a glamorous turn.
Laetitia Casta gets a killer entrance and a sexy dance, and if she doesn’t quite pull off Bardot’s impossible allure, I wonder who actually could; Anna Mougalis is feline-slinky as Greco, though lacks her extraterrestrial strangeness; and Birkin’s combination of willfulness and awkwardness is captured perfectly by the late Lucy Gordon.
One of the film’s greatest strengths, however, is lead Eric Elmosnino. On top of the improbably physical likeness, he captures all of Gainsbourg’s sly wit and magnetic charm, wreathed in cigarette smoke and whiskey fumes over a jazz piano, or growling out an irreverent cover of La Marseilleise in late-70s Jamaica.
The other great element is the music. Gainsbourg ranged widely across styles, from the cafe chansons of the ’50s to his own weird version of funk, and all phases, famous numbers included, are re-arranged and polished up with great success by Olivier Daviaud.
In opting for a heightened, semi-poetic approach, however, Sfar stumbles over real life events: awkward elisions deny us the climax of several good stories (teaching France Gall to sing “Les sucettes” for example); his first wife comes and goes with inexplicable abruptness; and for the life of me I don’t know how he ends up in Dali’s bedroom.
The alcoholism; the sex-obsession with undertones (not so deep) of paedophilia; the reactionary provocations: none of these facets of a complex character is probed for its darker implications, presented more like psychological window-dressing. But this is not the film for scab-picking – in his desire to create a hymn to his idol and a fairytale true to the spirit of Gainsbourg, Sfar has nigh-on hit the mark.