What’s So Bad about Biopic Clichés?

Eric Elmosnino plays Serge Gainsbroug in Gainsbourg:Une Vie Héroïque

Dear Dana,

If Gainsbourg: Une Vie Héroïque sends you back to your Serge records—naked or clothed, drunk or sober, with or without Gitanes—then I’d say Joann Sfar has done his job. Personally, I think the director bungled the music part of his music-legend biopic. The movie is weirdly miserly when it comes to Gainsbourg’s songs. The scene that you cite, when Gainsbourg plays “La Javanaise” for Juliette Gréco, was by far the film’s best musical set-piece; for a minute I thought the movie was going to morph into a jukebox musical, with songs threaded cleverly into the narrative. Instead, Sfar offers snippets, frustrating teases, of a handful of Gainsbourg anthems. His most famous record, “Je T’Aime … Moi Non Plus,” the heavy breathing duet with his wife Jane Birkin, is dispensed with in a brief scene in a record executive’s office. We hear more of “J’ai Rendez-Vous Avec Vous,” a George Brassens ditty that Gainsbourg’s father likes, than anything from Gainsbourg’s 1973 masterpiece L’Histoire de Melody Nelson.

I appreciate Sfar’s desire to steer clear of biopic clichés. But halfway through the movie I found myself longing for those clichés: a montage of concert triumphs, a newspaper headline whirling into view—something,  anything, to place Gainsbourg in a wider historical frame. What kind of a musician was Serge Gainsbourg? What set his songs apart? Where did his work fit into the pop of his time? When—and how, and why—did he become such a big star? The movie doesn’t answer these questions.

Instead, Sfar focuses on Serge’s personal life: his relationships with his parents and, especially, his lover-muses. (Then there’s his relationship with his gueule, that giant puppet doppelgänger, about which more below.) Gainsbourg’s professional trajectory, his climb from struggling painter to fledgling songwriter to international superstar, takes place almost entirely off-screen; his defining achievements are either ignored or rendered in surreal shorthand, in winks and allusions comprehensible only to Gainsbourg geeks. To be fair, nearly every Frenchman is a Gainsbourg geek. But most non-French viewers of Gainsbourg: Une Vie Héroïque will be confused. In one scene, Gainsbourg turns up a Parisian hair salon with a cabbage on his head. How many American moviegoers will realize that this is a reference to L’Homme à tête de chou (Cabbage-Head Man), Gainsbourg’s 1976 concept album about a roué who falls in love with a hairdresser?

As for that puppet: It’s a Jewish thing. But I’ll get into that in the next round.