In marketing the quite audacious Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, director Joann Sfar could have easily borrowed the now classic line from John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, " When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Playing out as a pseudo-biopic (imagine Tarantino, Almodovar and Jeunet taking a group stab at a French version of Fellini's 8 1/2) that takes great liberties with the subject matter of French singer/songwriter/icon Serge Gainsbourg, Sfar's film may be a big pack of lies (many originally propagated by Gainsbourg himself during his lifetime) but what does the truth matter when it comes to art - and this film is certainly the kook-kook-kookiest of cinematic art.
Visceral and cocksure (just like its subject), Sfar's take on Gainsbourg (adapted from the director's own graphic novel on the subject) is a bravura project that blends legend with truth (and yes, even though tall tales do prevail in Sfar's filmic tribute, most of the biographical information in the film is quite factual) and creates a bizarro world of semi-imaginary alter-egos and figments of fancy (self indulgent fancies if one were to be honest, but appropriately self indulgent) that go above and beyond any previous biopic this critic has seen. Perhaps it can get a bit too silly at times for some viewers, but isn't that silliness, a unique layover from the graphic novel, just part of the strange and brilliant entity known as Serge Gainsbourg?
Of course the aforementioned folks who would find a film such as this too silly, or even too "out there" as they say, probably have quite the Venn diagram crossover with those folks who have no idea who the Hell Serge Gainsbourg is. One of my personal favourite singers of all time, and an idol in French culture (his 1991 funeral pretty much shut down Paris for the day and President Mitterrand said of him, "He was our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire ... He elevated the song to the level of art."), Gainsbourg, born Lucien Ginsburg, a Russian Jew forced, as a child, to flee Paris with the coming of Hitler, is the perfect candidate to design such a unique attempt at biographical film (and graphic novel) around.
The enigmatic Gainsbourg is played here by look-alike Eric Elmosnino in what ends up being a most spectacular performance from beginning to end (actually the beginning is played by young actor Kacey Mottet Klein). Others weave in and out of Gainsbourg's life and love - Laetitia Casta as Brigitte Bardot, with whom Gainsbourg had quick but intense love affair with (he dedicated the album Initials BB to the iconic bombshell), Anna Mouglalis as the sirenesque Boho chanteuse Juliette Greco, and Lucy Gordon as Jane Birkin, British actress and singer and mother to Charlotte Gainsbourg - even Claude Chabrol, in what would end up being his final cinematic effort of any kind, makes a quick appearance as a record producer) - but it is Gainsbourg, or rather Elmosnino as Gainsbourg, and his engaging existence (incidental folly and all), that makes Sfar's feature debut pop, rock and roll. Print the legend indeed. [10/18/11]