Gainsbourg (vie heroique) gained much attention for not only becoming the first film ever to tell the story of France’s legendary rebel named Serge Gainsbourg on the big screen, but also accomplishing it in such unconventional manner that it appears questionable whether the film can be categorized as anything that matches the standards of a biopic.
The cinematic debut of Joan Sfar, a famous comics creator from Europe, may split its audience in two parties by his venture to approach the long-existing idea of a movie about the French cult of the last century through a rather risky exposure of the protagonist’s inner world and personal life, rather than going the traditional route of aiming at exploration of his career’s rises and falls and the public image his persona represented in society.
Those, who are looking forward to the thorough examining of the true events in the tumultuous life of a rowdy celebrity, will be left unsatisfied from the opening scene to the final credits of an over-two-hour observation of Serge’s continuous love affairs and interactions with his illusions from childhood imagination.
Nevertheless, the film apparently doesn’t lose much from its inconsistency with the real life of Gainsbourg, as it still succeeds to build connection between Gainsbourg and us, between his reality and ours, thus it is not surprising if you find yourself wondering what turn the story will take after the first fifteen minutes.
Sfar’s choice to focus his entire film on personal concerns of Gainsbourg may be applauded by ones and criticized by others. The man, whose name is behind some of the most controversial songs of the last century, was notorious for his outrageous attitude on stage and inadmissible statements addressed to those in power.
Aside from the scene involving Gainsbourg’s dispute with the right-wing war veterans in the last act, all this is barely even mentioned in Sfar’s movie. Although it would be certainly delightful to have a whole movie about the thrilling conflict between Gainsbourg and society and between his songs and publicity, Sfar’s movie proves that the personal life of the rowdy, yet talented and clever artist is also tremendously fascinating to watch.
Without any doubt, the movie strongly stands on the phenomenal acting, which quickly sells the story and convinces in its credibility. The lead actor, Eric Elmosnino, precisely implements every peculiar movement, every eccentric gesture and every unique face expression of Serge Gainsbourg to the degree, at which it becomes impossible to discern the actor in his role and question the embodiment of Gainsbourg on the screen.
Elmosnino completely disappears, giving the breath to the iconic figure in French music to have just one leap from the past to the present days and take advantage over another chance to sing seducing songs to his gorgeous women and handle queer conversations with the surreal La Guele, well-performed by the common man behind the mask, Doug Jones. The grandiose acting of the cast splendidly balances with Sfar’s surreal visuals and transiently flowing narrative.
However, the film’s title Gainsbourg (vie heroique), translated as Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, may cause confusion among many. Such title would be appropriate to the film about an artist, who was fighting for the truths he believed in, which was well-depicted in Gainsbourg’s argument with veterans of the war in Algeria regarding the actual meaning of the lyrics of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise. On the contrary, Sfar’s vie heroique implies the story of an unattractive man, whose talent is personified by his own hyperbole and whose dirty songs about lollipops have brought such beautiful and elegant ladies as Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin to his bed.
The question that may be whirling in one’s mind throughout the whole movie is “What was so great about this guy that turned him into a national idol?”. Every French person knows the answer to this question even prior to the beginning of the film, while every foreigner will leave theatre still asking this question until he looks up in the Internet or encyclopedia. A Heroic Life runs for over two hours, but never really reveals what was so heroic about Serge Gainsbourg.
Joan Sfar’s movie is ingenious in its delivery of the story, similarly to Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano and Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There. Its charming and unusual visual style and excellent acting contribute to the film’s distinction from others in its genre. The film is far from being anything like a detailed and reliable guide in exploring Serge Gainsbourg’s biography and the answer that would explain the prominence of his role in French culture and music.
Nonetheless, it is an entertaining journey throughout his private life, which discloses some truths of Gainsbourg’s nature and the way he was when not on stage. Gainsbourg (vie heroique) represents a sea one should cautiously swim in when discovering the deepness of Gainsbourg’s inner world, not a surface to confidently walk upon while investigating the reality that surrounded the protagonist.