I’m really glad we’re taking on Gainsbourg:Une Vie Héroïque, the new biopic about the French singer Serge Gainsbourg, in dialogue form. Not just because of the expertise you bring as a pop music critic and francophile, but because this stubbornly sui generis little movie is one I don’t quite know what to do with. I respect that the director, Joann Sfar, dared to deviate from the usual template of the music-legend biopic, which is to find a lookalike actor and march him through the Stations of the Cross: humble origins, youthful inspiration, mature artistic triumph, premature alcoholic decline. However, I’m not sure the best way to pep up that formula is to retain many of its elements while adding more papier-mâché puppet heads.
Sfar’s film, which is a series of interconnected vignettes, at least gets the casting right on the large, beaklike nose. The lead actor is a Gainsbourg ringer with the splendid name of Eric Elmosnino, and he nails the singer’s gravelly baritone voice and louche charisma. But what about the evil double that shadows the insecure hero throughout the film? Did you ever perceive this cat—a grotesque masked figure based on an anti-Semitic caricature that Gainsbourg, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, encounters as a child—as more than an unwelcome interloper, a hunk of whimsy awkwardly soldered on to an otherwise fairly conventional show-business psychodrama?
Sfar, a comic-book artist making his debut as a feature filmmaker, deserves credit for experimenting with the idea of externalizing his subject’s darkest impulses. I’m willing to be convinced that my resistance to the conceit of the puppet doppelgänger is just philistine literalism, especially given that this movie seduced me with a few scenes that lovingly showcase the sheer glory of Gainsbourg’s songs: their sophistication, their playfulness, their verbal and musical invention. It didn’t hurt that, unlike a standard Hollywood biopic, Gainsbourg doesn’t skimp on the frank eroticism. When Serge sat down at the piano and played the aching ballad “La Javanaise” for smoldering chanteuse Juliette Gréco (Anna Mouglalis) or pounded out the ingratiating pop duet “Comic Strip” with a nude-but-for-a-bed sheet Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta), I was willing to forgive this movie a lot. If nothing else, it made me want to haul out my too-long-neglected Gainsbourg discography and listen to it all again, preferably while smoking and drinking naked.