Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life (2011) Review

Whether you are a fan of the French singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg or you’ve never heard of him, you are going to find something to love in Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life. Highly stylized and told with magical realism, Gainsbourg is both an epic bio and an exaggerated love letter to a legendary artist and ladies’ man. Inspired more by the spirit of Gainsbourg than the actual facts, this story of art, beautiful women and seductive music will enchant audiences for years to come.

Serge Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino) begins his journey in Nazi-occupied France as a cheeky chain-smoking child who boasts about the yellow star he must wear on his arm. Wearing it as a mark of pride, the “ugly” Serge quickly adopts a mythical anti-Semitic cartoon caricature as his imaginary friend. His father, Joseph Gainsbourg (Razvan Vasilescu), trains him mercilessly to play the piano, while Serge wishes simply to paint. Traumatized by the constant threat of Nazi abduction, Gainsbourg transforms his imaginary friend into a tall, demon-like alter-ego, a slim caricature of whom he will grow up to be, complete with a skinny suit and tie, gigantic ears, beak-like nose, and spindly claw-like fingers. As audiences leap forward into his adult life, they see Gainsbourg advised by his alter-ego, who acts as both muse and devil in his life. This alter-ego seduces him to give up his paint brushes for a life of music and women.

And, oh, the women! Whether Serge is crooning for a voluptuous art model, a fellow art student, or his many admiring mistresses, Gainsbourg manages to seduce some of the most beautiful women in the world with his music and confidence, despite his supposedly “ugly” face. In one unforgettable sequence, he composes the song “Comic Strip” with his latest lover, Bridgette Bardot (a stunning Laetitia Casta) as she dances around his piano, wearing only a bed sheet. It’s whimsical and sexy, as Bardot sings the chorus “Shebang! Pow! Pop! Whee!” But Gainsbourg’s romances seem to scarcely outlast the length of his songs, and the wreckage of each romance simply propels him to the next.

His alter-ego demon assists him with every seduction of the moment. And Gainsbourg clearly masters the art of seduction, both in his crooning songs and his relentless libido. But here rests the tragedy of the character as well. Gainsbourg is a master as musician, seducer, artist and instigator. But fidelity, long-term commitment, and fatherhood? You have the wrong Frenchman. We know almost before his relationships begin that he will relish them short-term like a burning cigarette, with nothing left at the end but tendrils of smoke in a piano bar.

His second wife, Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon), a pixie-like English woman, does her best to reform him by bearing his children and singing in his songs. For a while, it seems like it will work, so much so that his alter-ego demon suffers banishment. But as always, Gainsbourg seeks to destroy his relationships in cycles of new desire, regret, and longing for what he has lost. He never stays still, and though in these small moments we feel pity for him, we know he will neither stay single or together for long.

Even if audiences are not familiar with his music, they may recognize some of the bigger hits within the film. Je T’aime Moi Non Plus was both a world hit and a scandal, though by today’s standards, the lyrics are tame. Unexpectedly, Gainsbourg later records with a Reggae band in Kingston, Jamaica for his controversial cover of the French national anthem La Marseillaise. If American audiences have heard none of his music before, it is certain that this film will attract new fans.

In the end, the magic of this film rests both in the inherent appeal of the music, and the director/writer’s (Joann Sfar) fairy-tale vision of Gainsbourg’s life. The highly stylized story is reminiscent of All That Jazz or Moulin Rouge. It is at times a musical, at times a drama, at times a romance. But it is never boring, and audiences expecting a French film to take itself too seriously will be surprised. Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life is full of joie de vivre, and will leave audiences singing.