Reviewed by: Tom Seymour

Bringing to the screen a pop musician so universally adored as Serge Gainsbourg is the definition of a thankless task. Gainsbourg patented the sound of Parisian dusk. He owned arriviste cool. He earnt shed-loads by hanging out in nightclubs making French sound beautiful. You don’t have to be fluent to know what he’s usually singing about, and that can’t be printed here. Along the way, this small, frail man, profoundly conscious of his Russian Jewish roots, bedded Bridget Bardot, Jane Birkin and countless other adoring women.

Suffice to say, Serge Gainsbourg had a long, glamorous career, full of the kind of event and intrigue that begs to be dramatised. As such, the paradox of the biopic obviously weighed heavily on director Joann Sfar from the moment he was given the gig; should he focus, narrowly, on a particularly formative era of Gainsbourg’s life or does he try and take it all on, in chapters and segments?

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The latter approach was uncompromisingly selected. Apart from his birth and death, we are dutifully taken through every stage of his life; every love affair and crooned tune, from the unsympathetic, authoritarian father of his childhood, to the alcohol-addled epilogue of his career, swapping dingy Parisian clubs for Jamaican beaches.

Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) is full of good performances. Eric Elmosnino, in the central role, allows the omnipresent cigarette to dangle at the most impossible angles from his smirking, seductive mouth. Laetitia Casta, our Brigitte Bardot, is ludicrously sexy despite being cloaked in a duvet. Lucy Gordon, the Jane Birkin lookalike who tragically committed suicide when the film was in post-production, has almonds eyes the size of sapphires. The way she stares at her obsession resonates with a cruel pathos.

The fault then must lie with the director, as this is a baggy, indulgent film. It is obvious Sfar suffers from a lack of discipline. This was a big project for a rookie director, primarily a graphic novelist (he drew a graphic novel of Gainsboug before shooting) and he is in need of a ruthless editor. If a producer had stood over him with a pair of pliers and a blow- torch during the edit, we would now have a tighter portrait. But he hasn’t been able to part with any of his material, and the result is an over-long saga that drowns the considered moments in superfluous fluff.

In the song Ecce Homo, Gainsbourg sings of his "Ganbarre", a malicious alter-ego lurking inside him. In an unexpected move, Sfar gives the Ganbarre figure a starring role. Known as his "mug", this Pan-like, prosthetic creature follows Gainsbourg, emerges in his moments of indecision and insecurity. Although undermined by poor shot selection, it’s an audacious device that suggests Sfar has the ability to endure. First he must learn that, unlike Serge, he can’t have everything his own way.

Reviewed on: 30 Jul 2010
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Gainsbourg packshot
Biopic of the French singer/songwriter.
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Director: Joann Sfar

Writer: Joann Sfar

Starring: Eric Elmosnino

Year: 2010

Runtime: 130 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France


Tribeca 2010

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