Based on the remarkable life of iconic French singer, poet, writer and actor Serge Gainsbourg, the film is a surreal and evocative record of Gainsbourg's youth growing up in 1940s Nazi-occupied Paris, when he was called Lucien Ginsberg, through to his transformation into the hard-living showman, enfant terrible and successful song-writer of the '50s and '60s (famous for his glamorous lovers including Brigitte Bardot and Jane Birkin), to his notoriety in the '70s and '80s. We glimpse the fantasy world that drove his inspiration, the women he loved and lost and most of all, the music that made him a legend.
With Gainsbourg, the story of controversial French songwriter and musician Serge Gainsbourg, writer and director Joann Sfar has obviously decided that there’s no need, or even possibility, of meeting the subject’s involved and often crazed life with a detailed, faithful retelling. Sfar confronts the life of a man who was constantly inventing – whether it was new songs, a public persona or media controversy – with his own attempt at equally fractured proceedings. As the genre goes, this is more Frida than Gandhi. That it doesn’t entirely work is, in a roundabout way, a tribute to the subject – even from the grave Gainsbourg is vexatious enough to derail the recreation of his own life.
Sfar is not entirely abstract. He takes care to plant the seeds of Gainsbourg’s self-militancy in his childhood, when the impertinent son of a Russian Jewish couple grows up amidst the imposition of yellow stars and anti-Semitic propaganda disseminated by the conquering German army and not entirely rejected by elements of French society. As the young Lucien Gainsbourg (Kacey Mottet Klein) walks the Parisian streets, a crude poster comes alive and a Jewish caricature, rendered as a bulbous papier mache creation that is all exaggerated features, daftly pursues him.
The filmmaker, helming his debut feature, comes from a comic book background, giving him an ease with digressive elements and a feel for physical creations. In a film that has no shortage of female companions for the adult Gainsbourg (Eric Elmosnino), the enduring presence is that of his ambition and creativity, a puppet-like creature with a scimitar long nose who urges him to be indiscrete and seize the moment. La Gueule (roughly translated as The Mouth, played by Doug Jones) resembles a character the young Gainsbourg, an artist, once created. 'They love to hate him," he explained to his older sisters, and that becomes Gainsbourg’s own station in life.
As a musician who changed his first name to Serge, Gainsbourg had a rich career from the 1950s until his death in 1991 at the age of 62. He lived and wrote through café cabaret, teenage pop, rock & roll and the electronic era, but much of his work is heard as lyrics murmured to the two most famous women in his life: Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta), who he had an affair with in 1967, and Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon), the mother of Charlotte, who he was married to from 1968 to 1980. His time with the pair provides a rough timeline, although Sfar and Elmosnino only go as far as pitching Gainsbourg’s unkempt charm and libidinous instincts – the film suggests women regularly fell for him, but it can’t really say why and despite his obvious physical desires the story oddly doesn’t use sex as a means of defining Gainsbourg. Was he a selfish lover or a giving one? Did Serge revert to Lucien in bed? Gainsbourg is somewhat more prudish than its subject.
In the final act, Gainsbourg veers out of his hermetic world of lyricism, cigarette smoke and drunken dalliances to take in a shambolic concert performance (circa 1975’s Rock Around the Bunker) and a Jamaican recording session (for 1978’s temporary conversion to reggae). It’s a shock to see the outside world, and you realise that Sfar has to try this because as a character Gainsbourg has run out of possibilities; a drunken boor is a drunken boor. Even La Gueule is exasperated with his personal charge. With a director whose ideas are expansive but without great subtlety, there’s no contemplative edge to the picture. The imagined world, with its elements of fantasy, can’t sustain the character’s obvious, unanswered for flaws. Gainsbourg is like a song without a decent chorus, and the man himself, a gifted craftsman, would never have stood for that.