Strange, beautiful and sexy, this unconventional biography of French singer/songwriter/artist/author/director/cultural icon Serge Gainsbourg is an audacious artistic triumph. Directed and written by French graphic novelist Joann Sfar, the movie is akin to what 2007’s elegantly stylish Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose might have been like with Guillermo del Toro behind the camera.
That’s because in addition to lushly imaginative production design and an overall tone that’s occasionally quite dark, the movie features a pair of intriguingly bizarre fantasy characters. One is an anti-semitic propaganda poster’s multi-armed representation of a monstrous Jewish caricature. It occasionally accompanies and even sleeps beside Gainsbourg, a reminder of the bigotry he encountered as a child named Lucien Ginsburg (Kacey Mottet Klein) in Nazi-occupied Paris.
The other is a cartoonishly exaggerated version of Gainsbourg himself that he refers to as “La Gueule” (subtitle-translated as “The Mug”). This spindly, chain-smoking mentor/muse/antagonist (played by Doug Jones) has glowing eyes, expressive foot-long fingers and an enormous rudder of a nose.
Eric Elmosnino gives one of the best performances of the year as the grown-up Gainsbourg, whose eventual fame and fortune are tempered by vague self-loathing and Gallic ennui. When the vaguely sinister La Gueule first shows up, he identifies himself by asking, “Don’t you recognize your ugly mug?”
The movie’s portrayal of the swinging ’60s, sleazy ’70s and beyond will seem exotically alternate-universe European to anyone who thinks of those eras in only British Invasion and American rock-and-roll terms. In a home decked out like a crimson bordello with a talking black cat, singer Juliette Greco (Anna Mouglalis) seduces Gainsbourg into writing songs for her. Later, Gainsbourg’s parents probably weren’t the only ones shocked to learn that their son was bedding the married Brigitte Bardot (played with exuberant carnality by model Laetitia Casta), for whom he wrote such Franco-pops as “Bonnie and Clyde” and the gleefully silly “Comic Strip.” Gainsbourg’s sly offer to write a dirty song about lollipops for knee-socks-wearing teenage dream France Gall (Sara Forestier) results in the hilariously unsubtle double-entendre single “Les sucettes.”
One of the movie’s funniest moments involves Gainsbourg’s notorious “Je t’aime… Moi non plus” collaboration with future wife Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon). On first hearing the song’s erotic moans and orgasmic whispers, Gainsbourg’s publisher announces he’s not going to be sent to jail over one song… so the couple should go back and record an album’s worth of them.
As for biographical accuracy, director/writer Sfar has confessed he “couldn’t care less about the truth.” That gives him free rein to come up with scenes such as Gainsbourg being flown by La Gueule over nighttime rooftops away from one of his families, or burning his paintings when he decides to pursue a career in music.
The movie’s soundtrack uses the original versions of only two songs (“Je t’aime… Moi non plus” and “Valse de Melody”). Elmosnino recreates Gainsbourg’s parts elsewhere. Score composer Olivier Daviaud has noted “he wasn’t very much like Gainsbourg, but he evoked such incredible emotion his voice gave us goosebumps.” The movie’s other actors likewise seem to do a fine job of singing their characters’ songs, although I confess I’m not enough of a Continental connoisseur to take offense at any liberties that may have been taken.
Even those unable to fathom the appeal of Serge Gainsbourg’s sometimes quirky artistic output and often obnoxious personality will be intrigued by this fascinating look at his thoroughly interesting life.